CINCINNATI -- One of boxing’s oldest adages is that a fighter can't become a champion until they suffer their first loss.
With 25 combined defeats in the previous two seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals had plenty of character-building experiences. But the Bengals are no longer the proverbial tomato can. After three wins in their first four games, Cincinnati has resembled a true playoff contender.
That’s what made Sunday’s 25-22 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers a different type of experience. Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said the contest against one of the NFL’s best teams felt like two fighters trading punches.
“That’s what it is every time we are out there,” Awuzie said. “And that’s what it seemed to be, like it’s going to be for the rest of the season.”
Awuzie recalled the metaphor because Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo had previously showed players one of the greatest rounds in boxing history to provide a visual reference.
Anarumo, a native New Yorker and avid boxing fan, pulled up the 10th round of the Nov. 13, 1992 heavyweight title fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe. Those incredible three minutes started with Bowe smacking Holyfield, eyes nearly shut and legs woozy, around the ring as Holyfield fought to stay on his feet. It ended with an improbable Holyfield rally that featured a barrage of wild hooks that nearly put Bowe down at the bell.
The final minutes of the Bengals-Packers game at Paul Brown Stadium featured similar momentum swings. Both teams combined to miss five go-ahead field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime, the most in an NFL game since 1970, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby, who missed three of those, eventually put the game to rest with a 49-yarder with 1:55 left in overtime.
Cincinnati was able to recover from an 8-point deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game in regulation. And despite offensive inconsistency and a 206-yard receiving performance by Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, the Bengals had chances to win the game.
That is why Bengals coach Zac Taylor wasn’t too despondent in the minutes following a game he described as a “roller coaster.” For Taylor, there were no questions about what type of fight and energy this year’s team has.
“I know exactly what kind of football team we have now,” Taylor said.
However, the sense of urgency that has permeated this critical season still remains. After two years of being one of the league’s worst teams, and in the midst of a five-year playoff drought, the Bengals know they need the wins that come with the progress they feel.
“We’ve got to win games that are tight,” Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson said. “That’s what good teams do.”
The Packers (4-1) are typical of the quality opponents the Bengals (3-2) will have to beat if Cincinnati wants to be in playoff contention by the end of the season.
Taylor said the Bengals don't need moral victories to show they are capable of beating the top teams in the league.
“We just want to win them,” Taylor said.
But Sunday’s defeat showed the rebuilding process that has taken a couple of years is still ongoing. Awuzie referenced Cincinnati’s youth and the number of new players like himself that were added over the past two offseasons. He said other teams are learning about the Bengals’ toughness.
Green Bay received that message.
“They’re not the old Bengals that everybody expects to roll over,” said Adams.
For years, the Bengals have looked like the version of Holyfield that was getting walloped by Bowe, the one that eventually lost that fight nearly 30 years ago. Awuzie said Sunday’s loss was the Bengals testing their proverbial chin and learning what it will take to land that deciding blow.
“One of these games against a really good team,” Awuzie said, “we are going to have our knockout punch.”