Win a big game. Set up a chance to build in-season momentum. Promptly squander it away.
The game against Los Angeles was Cincinnati’s third chance this season to build a three-game winning streak, a feat Bengals coach Zac Taylor pointed out in the week leading up to the game. But a poor start and four turnovers were Cincinnati’s undoing in a 41-22 loss against the Chargers. Instead of having a chance to take a share of the AFC North lead by the end of the night, the Bengals were sifted toward the midfield of the AFC playoff race.
And just as importantly, Cincinnati was left trying to figure out why the team couldn’t find the level of consistency it had been searching for all season.
“I have no clue,” Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins said after the game. “We have to push through and get it done.”
For a team that had six wins in the previous two years combined, trying to solve why winning streaks aren’t long enough is a testament to the franchise’s transformation from the worst team in the NFL to a playoff contender.
Leading into what he called the biggest game of the year, Taylor acknowledged the importance of securing an elusive third straight victory -- a feat the Bengals haven’t accomplished since the start of the 2015 season.
“We’ve been good in spurts and we haven’t finished off that string of games,” Taylor said last week. “Now’s an opportunity to build some real momentum.”
Cincinnati surrendered 24 consecutive points in the first half against the Chargers, setting up a chase for the biggest comeback in franchise history. L.A. (7-5) was on the ropes in the second half and had the lead whittled down to 24-22 early in the fourth quarter.
But two more turnovers, including a 61-yard fumble return for a touchdown, ensured the Bengals (7-5) couldn’t couldn't stretch two wins into three -- again.
Sunday’s sloppy loss was similar to Cincinnati’s other chances to extend streaks this season.
In Week 5 against the Green Bay Packers, two missed field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime spoiled a chance for a win against one of the NFC’s best teams. In Week 8, the Bengals watched an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead disappear against the rebuilding Jets.
On Sunday, running back Joe Mixon’s fumble that was returned for a touchdown with 13:43 remaining proved to be decisive in a game that featured runs of 24, 22 and 17 unanswered points.
“They threw their best punch,” said Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson. “I had a good feeling we ate it pretty well and we're a pretty resilient football team. At the end of the day, we need to win these tight games.”
Fortunately for the Bengals, no AFC team has been able to separate itself from the pack.
One week after a 41-10 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati had a chance to dispel a narrative that it couldn’t capitalize on big wins.
Instead, that storyline remains unresolved.