Bengals' improvement in loss to Chargers comes far too late

CARSON, Calif. -- The Cincinnati Bengals played the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday in a way that fans have been begging to see for weeks, but the outcome was exactly the same.

The Bengals (5-8) secured their third straight non-winning season after a 26-21 loss to the Chargers despite showing an attitude that hasn't been seen in weeks.

They gave running back Joe Mixon the ball early and often after taking criticism for underusing him lately, and he responded with 26 carries for 111 yards and five receptions for 27 yards.

They aggressively went for it on fourth down and on two-point tries (albeit unsuccessfully).

They gave some of their young players, such as Christian Westerman and Malik Jefferson, a shot. Their defense, which has been their Achilles heel this season, played in a manner that hasn't been seen since the beginning of the season. After allowing 155 yards in the first quarter and looking headed for yet another blowout, the defense allowed only 288 yards for the game, something that seemed impossible for the struggling unit.

Yet none of it means anything. Now that it's mid-December and the playoffs are basically out of the question, the only thing that really came out of the game was that the Bengals got their pride back.

"That's not what this is about," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "This team, the fans -- they deserve a win. … To say [it's] a moral victory for Tyler Boyd, that isn't worth [anything] when he's playing his tail off week in and week out, day in and day out. Joe Mixon, guys stepping up and playing on defense today. They did a great job."

Lewis didn't say if the team's downward slide made the coaching staff throw more caution to the wind considering they have little left to lose. He said the decision to go for two early and try to convert on fourth-and-inches were situational. But it was definitely an abrupt change for a team that tends to lean conservative.

It's fair to wonder what would have happened if the Bengals would've adopted a more aggressive approach earlier in the season. It might have meant nothing or, if successful, it might have sparked something that led them to wins in games that were ultimately close losses.

On Sunday, those aggressive decisions didn't pan out in the Bengals' favor. Ultimately, the bigger problem is that the team is still making the same mistakes that it made at the beginning of the season.

When the Bengals needed a play the most, they balked. They are a long way away from the team that marched down the field to beat the Falcons or forced late turnovers to come back against the Dolphins early in the season.

The Bengals had a chance to make it a four-point game midway through the second quarter after quarterback Jeff Driskel scrambled and dove for a touchdown on third-and-goal from the Chargers' 1-yard line. Officials reversed the call and ruled him down inside the 1, citing a new point of emphasis regarding players who dive head first.

A player who dives head first will now be judged to have given himself up, and the ball will be spotted where he first touched the ground. Previously, the ball was spotted where forward progress stopped. Officials ruled Driskel short of the goal line after viewing the replay.

"I was not giving myself up," Driskel said. "That is within the rule book and how it is interpreted. It is what it is. I wasn't giving myself up. I have to figure out another way to get myself in there."

The Bengals might have recovered from that if they had been successful on the next play, a fourth-and-goal inside the 1. But guard Alex Redmond false started, and the Bengals kicked a field goal.

"That's some rookie s---, I can't be letting that happen. It is frustrating," Redmond told reporters.

Unfortunately for the Bengals, these are the kind of things that keep happening to them lately. The false start wasn't the only critical error. There was a failed two-point conversion attempt late in the second half, followed by a offsides penalty by Jordan Willis with one second left in the second quarter that gave the Chargers an attempt at a 59-yard field goal.

"It's very frustrating," safety Jessie Bates said. "It's as simple as staying onside. It's what we learned since the first time we played football. It's disappointing that we keep having the same thing come up. It costs us points as well."

An aggressive call to go for it on fourth-and-inches from their own 35-yard line with 12:51 failed as well when Mixon was stopped for no gain. A crucial two-point conversion attempt that would’ve tied the game also failed.

Fittingly, the final sequence of events went badly for the Bengals, from a feeble attempt at an onside kick to a desperation last drive that ended when the Bengals weren't able to get lined up in time to snap the ball before the clock ran out.

The Bengals have yet to fire on all cylinders for an entire game this season, and it doesn't seem like it will happen. They gave up points to end the first half for the 11th time in 13 games, and what seems like small mistakes have loomed large.

Whether it was Dre Kirkpatrick getting flagged for holding on third-and-10 late against the Steelers, or critical errors by linemen against the Broncos and Chargers, they simply haven’t been able to overcome themselves.

The Bengals being their own worst enemy is as much the story of the season as injuries and is something that involves everyone, from the coaching staff to the players. When the season is finally over, the Bengals will wonder if they were capable of more than they showed the second half of the year.

"Everyone out there knows it," Bates said. "We have talent and we can play anybody. It's just playing it for four quarters and winning ball games."