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Moral victories and trying to save the Bengals’ season with a barely-used receiver

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The Cincinnati Bengals faced a three-point deficit and needed three yards. With the game on the line, they relied on a barely-used wide receiver.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It’s fourth down from the Bengals’ 37-yard line. There’s 1:46 remaining in this Titanic struggle. A Week 11 game between the Bengals and Ravens. Cincinnati, facing a three-point deficit, needs three yards.

A.J. Green is standing in street clothes cheering his mates. Not an option. John Ross only scores touchdowns — they’re too far away, despite Andy Dalton’s canon. Tyler Boyd is a marked man, by both sides. Cincinnati’s quarterback targeted Boyd 11 times, who led the team with four receptions and 71 yards receiving.

What are your options? Whom do you trust most? Is the season on the line?

Dalton takes the shotgun snap, eyes the middle of the field, and shifts his sightline right. Cody Core, in single coverage, runs well beyond the first down marker and hooks back. Despite some hand-fighting with Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Core spun toward his quarterback with the football in flight. Instead of converting the fourth down and continuing the possession, the football bounced off of Core and landed harmlessly on the turf.

Wait, what?

You put the entire game on the line for Cody Core? This could be the season. Had Cincinnati won, they secure relative comfort for the No. 6 wild card seed, concluding an important tiebreaker against the Ravens while Tennessee dropped to 5-5 with a 38-10 loss to Indianapolis.

Cody Core.

Seriously?

Instead of sustaining the drive for a possible game-tying field goal (or touchdown), the Bengals lost 24-21. Their season, which began at 4-1, continues to spiral with losses in four of their last five games.

Despite the disintegration of a once-enthusiastic season, we had hoped for more against Baltimore. A reset, if you will.

With Marvin Lewis taking over the team’s defensive play-calling, there was a hope Cincinnati’s defense would regain a sense of pride and confidence after the disastrous Teryl Austin era culminated with 500-plus yards in three straight games. A revitalized defense could mitigate the struggles Cincinnati’s offense faced.

Instead they allowed 403 yards of offense, with a season-high 265 yards allowed on the ground, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson (117 yards) and running back Gus Edwards (115). The 265 yards rushing allowed, tied for the eighth-most in franchise history, and the most since a Week 4 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This, to a rookie quarterback starting his first game and a backup running back who had never scored a touchdown.

Bengals games when the defense allowed 250 yards rushing or more (Sunday’s game not included yet):

On the bright side, the Bengals didn’t allow 500 yards or 40 points.

There’s that. Good job, Marv. Have we reached the moral victory phase of the season yet?

“Today, I thought they learned something about themselves,” Lewis said after the game. “We had opportunities, but we didn’t take full advantage of them. We’ve got to take full advantage, but we learn. It’s easier to evaluate a little bit after I’ve seen it. But, for them, they’ve got to be excited. We know where we are, and now it’s a race to the finish. And they are in the same position we are. And now we’ve got to go.”

Fine.

In a way, Sunday was a game of shifting momentum.

Baltimore started with it, pounding Cincinnati’s defense with an 11-play touchdown drive, all running plays. Eventually the defense adjusted, keying off the run and allowing rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to beat them through the air. The Marvin Lewis defense regained an advantage by forcing Baltimore to punt three times before a pair of field goals gave the Ravens a 13-7 halftime lead.

In the meantime, Cincinnati’s offense creatively struggled while lacking an identifiable philosophy. Joe Mixon couldn’t find a lane, half the offensive line was constantly on the ground, and Dalton desperately sought weapons to mitigate the vulnerabilities caused by Green’s absence.

Baltimore emphasized coverage against Boyd, singled-out Ross, ignored the no-name cast of tight ends, and watched Mixon and Giovani Bernard generate a poultry 19 yards rushing on 14 carries. Little did we know that both quarterbacks would lead their respective teams on the ground — Dalton had 29 yards, surpassing the lethal combination of Mixon and Bernard by 10 paces.

It wasn’t until the second half that Cincinnati found some life.

Cincinnati’s defense forced a scrambling Lamar Jackson to throw an interception, leading to a Bengals touchdown four plays later. On Baltimore’s ensuing possession, Hardy Nickerson made an impact by clogging a lane Jackson identified for a fourth down conversion. Ross gave Cincinnati a 21-13 lead on an impossible-to-imagine touchdown reception — that’s four career touchdowns on 11 career receptions now. Unfortunately the Ravens recovered with 10 unanswered points, taking a 24-21 lead with 8:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, the final tally of Sunday’s loss.

Momentum teased Cincinnati midway through the fourth quarter with the Bengals moving 47 yards to the Ravens’ 33-yard line with a pair of third down conversations by Boyd. However, a third conversion wasn’t in the cards and Randy Bullock’s ensuing 52-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right. In fairness to Bullock, an accurate kicker, as long as the attempts are less than 50 yards, he has the distance.

There were moral victories from Sunday.

Cincinnati didn’t allow over 500 yards; then again they didn’t play an offense capable of it. Defensively they held Baltimore to a punt or turnover on six of 11 possessions, a vast improvement compared to last week when the Saints scored during every possession. Geno Atkins looked better. Darqueze Dennard’s return helped. Sam Hubbard and Jessie Bates played well.

Offensively, the Bengals are simply holding on until Green returns — maybe next week. Boyd is a successful NFL receiver, but opposing defenses are smart to key off Mixon and Bernard.

Cincinnati’s schedule eases even further with home games against the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos coming up.