MIAMI -- OK, yes, the Cincinnati Bengals lost Thursday night. For the first time in five weeks, they weren't the better team on the field.
But does that suddenly mean they're a bad bunch? Does their 22-20 overtime defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins, a team that until this week couldn't buy a victory, mean they should no longer be declared one of the AFC's elite teams? Does a 6-3 record mean they aren't a relevant part of future postseason projections?
Does Geno Atkins' potential ACL injury signal a death knell of sorts for this team that began the season with so much hope, so much promise and such high expectations?
No. No. No. And no.
Don't let the result, or even the final play, of Thursday's contest fool you. Cincinnati still has a strong team. The Bengals will be part of the playoff picture. It was just that, after nine games of all that grinding and fighting and scratching and clawing, they didn't have quite enough left when they needed it the most. As they concluded one of the more challenging obstacles they have encountered all season, they fell flat late.
A block was missed, a pass wasn't thrown, an imaginary line was drawn, a quarterback went down and a game was lost.
But still, even after all that, with about half the season still staring them in the face, very little changes for the Bengals.
"What we want to do is win the division, make it to the playoffs and win some football games," cornerback Terence Newman said. "We've got a little time off to regroup and try and get healthy and make another push."
Since Sept. 8, they've been pushing all right. Even after losing the season opener at Chicago, the Bengals worked their way to a 6-2 first-half record that included four wins in October before Thursday night. Against the tall odds of a stretch featuring four road games in five weeks, against more adverse conditions than most of the current playoff-contending teams have faced, the Bengals still have held it together. They've taken coach Marvin Lewis' most-used word to heart. They have been "grinding."
Just take Thursday's game. Before halftime, Cincinnati had every reason in the world to pack it in, play for the whistle and jump on the plane back home to rest their weary bones and aching muscles. Few would have blamed them. Outmatched at the line of scrimmage much of the physical first half, they were trailing 10-3 and had just lost arguably their best defensive player in Atkins. Besides, they had already come into the game down four of their top players overall. Their intense play from the first eight games was finally starting to catch up to them.
The grinding appeared to be coming to a screeching halt.
But then came the final 35 minutes. Right when it appeared the short week was catching up with the Bengals, it caught up to the Dolphins. As Miami's defenders struggled to slow them, the Bengals spent the third and fourth quarters staging a comeback and taking the lead on yet another field goal from their prized kicker, Mike Nugent, inside the final two minutes of regulation. He already had winning kicks against Detroit and, in overtime, against Buffalo.
Then came the final 20 seconds, a tying Dolphins field goal and the overtime period that followed. On Cincinnati's final possession, the game ended when, pinned against his own end zone, quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked. The play was close. He had entered the end zone, stepped out and may have still been out of the end zone with the ball when he was struck by Cameron Wake. The force of the hit sent Dalton backward and into the end zone, where he was downed for the winning safety.
A replay review sought to confirm whether he had been hit while the ball was still in the field of play. The review came back and determined that the ball was in the end zone when Dalton began to go down. He was indeed sacked for a safety.
It was the ending to a game, but not a season.
After the call was upheld, several Bengals stood around the Sun Life Stadium field looking perplexed. It was clear they were having trouble comprehending the bizarre ending.
"It hurts," said receiver Marvin Jones, who caught four touchdowns last Sunday. "You don't want to lose games like that. You don't want to lose games period. But we're a great team."
Part of the added difficulty to this week's grind stemmed from the Bengals' general lack of health. Four players left Sunday's 49-9 win over the New York Jets with injuries, and only one of them was activated against Miami. On an already-short week, the Bengals were asked to shuffle their lineup, giving young reserves opportunities to fill in for beat-up starters and Pro Bowl veterans.
Asked if the short week plus the slew of injuries had a hand in the loss, the Bengals vigorously shook their heads no.
"It's just part of the schedule," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We've got to finish better. We fought our tails off, we were down by 14, our guys played their hearts out and got back in the game, but we just couldn't finish."
Jones echoed those sentiments, saying he felt the Bengals had strong practices in the limited time they had to work out this week.
"Coaches did a great job of keeping us fresh, and I felt as fresh as I've been," Jones said. "So there was none of that. It just didn't come out right in the end. ... We fought, and Miami had those plays at the end. That's a tribute to them."
The fact that the Bengals were inches away from potentially getting out of Miami with a win some weren't sure would come anyway, speaks to how well they performed given the odds. This loss doesn't change much.
Cincinnati still has a very good team.