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The good, the bad and the ugly in Bengals’ loss to Chargers

Cincinnati made it interesting for a little while, but, in the end, the Bengals ended up beating themselves.

After two dominating victories, the Cincinnati Bengals had a crash back to reality this week. They dropped an important one to the Chargers, and they need to win more of their remaining games than they lose to get into the playoffs.

Here are the best and worst facets to the Bengals’ 41-22 loss to Los Angeles in Week 13.

The good

Gutting through injuries:

In such a critical matchup with playoff implications, Cincinnati entered the game short-handed with Trey Hopkins, Riley Reiff, Darius Phillips and Chris Evans all being shelved with injuries. As the game wore on, more and more important players exited with varying issues. Even so, players stepped up and played admirably.

Isaiah Prince was tabbed as the starting right tackle and responded with a respectable 70.6 PFF pass block grade in true pass sets. Joe Bachie came in at linebacker as Logan Wilson and Markus Bailey left with shoulder injuries, and responded with tying a team-high in tackles with nine.

And, of course, we can’t talk about this facet without mentioning Joe Burrow. No. 9 dislocated his pinky on his throwing hand and aside from an egregious red zone pick, he had a number of excellent throws, even though the injury clearly bothered him.

We have to tip the cap and respect a number of Bengals players continuing to grind through injuries and/or when their number was unexpectedly called upon Sunday.

Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd:

The first half of the year was the Ja’Marr Chase show, with Higgins and Boyd taking a major statistical back seat. With defenses keying on No. 1 (and his own small amount of destructive plays), these two have re-emerged as valuable weapons.

Higgins had career-highs in receptions (nine) and yards (138), seemingly hitting his stride. His performance was complete with the trademark high-point, contested catches that were missing from his repertoire at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, Boyd was once again a valuable chain-mover, with three of his five catches netting first downs. To boot, he had a nice 17.0 yards per catch average on Sunday.

Cincinnati needs these two to continue their solid contributions as Chase grows and matures out of some of the usual rookie ebbs and flows from a star wideout.

Defense continuing to create huge plays:

One of the things we talked about the Bengals needing to achieve out of the bye week was to create more turnovers and game-breaking plays from the defense. To that point, the unit was solid at getting off of the field and “bending-but-not-breaking”, but these big plays came at a premium.

In the three games since the bye, the Bengals have netted eight total turnovers (four interceptions and four fumble recoveries). They’re coming from a number of different players in in different varieties, too, be it via sack-fumble, pick-six or otherwise.

With so much youth on offense, these big plays creating points and short field will be critical. This is especially true with guys like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield (who has grown into a Bengal-killer) left on the schedule.

Bengals staying put in the playoff picture, despite losing:

Losing a head-to-head matchup with a now-fellow Wild Card team stings, but the Bengals got some help on Monday night. The Bills losing only forced Cincinnati to lose one spot, and if the playoffs were to end today, Cincinnati would be in the postseason.

Cincinnati has a tough stretch of games left, but they control their destiny. And, while the team lost and the opponents provide matchup issues, the 49ers, Chiefs, Broncos, Ravens and Browns have all shown obvious vulnerabilities.

The bad

Secondary getting bullied by big wide receivers:

The Bengals’ secondary has played well this year, especially considering Trae Waynes has barely played, but L.A.’s huge wide receivers had their way with Cincinnati’s defensive backs. Chidobe Awuzie wrestled a pick away from Josh Palmer, but was victimized by Mike Williams on the opening drive with a 41-yard reception.

Additionally, Jalen Guyton got the better of Jessie Bates III on a contested touchdown catch, while Keenan Allen had his predictable share of big, tough catches. With Cincinnati set to face big tight ends in George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Noah Fant and Mark Andrews, as well as how tough of a time Cleveland’s wide receivers have given the Bengals’ defense of late, this has to be cleaned up ASAP.

Early mistakes forcing the Bengals away from the past two weeks’ successful game plan:

Aside from wanting more tide-turning plays from the defense, Cincinnati wanted more balance on offense coming out of the bye. They responded well in that regard, as Mixon had two of his best games as a pro against the Raiders and Steelers, respectively.

Unfortunately, early turnovers and allowances of the Chargers to get on top early, forced the Bengals to get more pass-heavy—particularly as the margin widened. It caused more hits (11) and sacks (six) of Burrow, while Mixon wasn’t much of a factor.

Of course, the absences of two starting offensive linemen didn’t help, but the Bengals got away from what was successful for them the past two Sundays. This is particularly painful when L.A. entered the game as the league’s worst run defense.

A supposed lack of early energy and a mistake-filled day of importance:

Bengals Nation was inspired by the great open letter sent out by Elizabeth Blackburn, as she and many others pleaded with the fan base to pack Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday. The playoff push is on and this one against the Chargers was to be a big stepping stone in the resurgence of these young Bengals.

Instead, the Bengals tripped over their own feet, as a number of mistakes cost them an opportunity to what would have placed them atop the AFC North, based on how the rest of Week 13 transpired. And, it was another double-digit loss on the heels of an impressive win streak.

Additionally, both Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins noted a lack of energy early in the game. We’re not sure what the specifics are in which they were referring (lack of a sellout crowd, gameplan issues, early mistakes), but that is really concerning in such an important game in the season.

The ugly

Wacky and costly mistakes by the stars:

The Bengals’ “triplets” of offensive stars hit the turnover trifecta on Sunday. First, Burrow threw a dart to Chase that should have been a touchdown, if not for one of the odder sequences of events occurred, wherein a Chargers defender came up with an interception. L.A. turned that into a touchdown drive of their own for a 14-point swing.

After mounting a great comeback, Mixon had his first lost fumble since—you guessed it—Week 1 against the Chargers last year. Making matters worse was that this fumble was returned for a touchdown, squashing any real hopes of a Cincinnati win.

To complete the cycle of futility, Burrow threw an interception in the end zone, with the Bengals down two possessions in the fourth quarter. If you account for the plays themselves, their results and where these turnovers occurred, an argument could be made that the Bengals shifted the scoreboard for multiple touchdowns in favor of the Chargers.

Clock management and offensive disorganization:

The Higgins touchdown reception started the comeback, but it wasn’t all roses at the end of the score. Cincinnati wanted to go for two, but had major communication issues, forcing them to burn a timeout. Then, they came out of said break with a penalty, forcing them to kick the extra point—which they missed.

Later, after the Awuzie interception before the half, Cincinnati had a solid opportunity to chisel away further at the L.A. lead, but some really poor clock management at the end of the half led to them squandering the turnover. Burrow was visibly upset and these were big moments that were overshadowed by their own turnovers.

Zac Taylor took responsibility for things after the game, namely the two-point conversion debacle, but that doesn’t really help after-the-fact. Again, this team will need to continue to mature quickly if they are to make it to and through the playoffs this year.

The narratives, accurate or not:

Outsiders want to point to Justin Herbert out-dueling Joe Burrow, but an examination of both PFF scores and the film will tell otherwise. That’s just one of the talking points coming from this result.

Of course, “the Bengals aren’t there, yet” and their inability to handle success are two others. In a loss like this, questions abound and any good feelings stemming from one short week ago fly out of the window.

On one hand, the Bengals have proven they can basically beat anyone remaining on their schedule—either by doing so already, or those teams’ own inconsistencies. However, on the other, Cincinnati is also one of those Jekyll-and-Hyde teams that litter the AFC playoff bracket.

In short, this game was frustrating that both made folks feel like the Bengals lost it, rather than the Chargers dominating, but also brings about worries for the readiness of the 2021 Cincinnati squad.