Last season in Week 16, the Bengals rallied back from a 23-point deficit in the final seven minutes to force overtime before losing by a field goal, but they did just the opposite Sunday. In a game that featured five ejections over two separate incidents, Cincinnati lost control as the Dolphins rallied for a 19-7 win at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. There was no recovering after a fourth-quarter brawl.
Here are five takeaways from the Bengals’ ninth loss of the season:
1. Sudden shift in momentum
The Bengals had a chance to take a 10-3 lead into halftime, but after Brandon Allen’s third-down pass to Tyler Boyd fell incomplete to set up a 38-yard field goal attempt, he took what seemed to be a late hit out of bounds and ended up in a scuffle with cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Bryon Jones.
Boyd and Howard threw punches and were ejected. Only Boyd was penalized for a personal foul. That backed the Bengals up 15 yards, and Randy Bullock missed the 53-yard field goal attempt with 58 seconds left in the second quarter.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said the officials didn’t really explain why the penalties weren’t offsetting; however, NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron told the pool reporter after the game that the rules only allowed for the reviewing officials in New York to make calls on an ejection.
“The rule reads that whenever we have a foul in those situations, can get involved from New York when it comes to disqualifications,” he said. “However, we do not have the authority to ask the officials on the field to throw another flag. So therefore, they originally had a foul on Cincinnati because they ejected a Cincinnati player. And then here from New York, we also saw a punch thrown by a Miami player and ejected him. We can disqualify a player, but by rule we cannot add another penalty.”
The missed field goal was deflating, though. The Dolphins moved 27 yards on four plays, and Jason Sanders made a 48-yard field goal at the gun to cut the Bengals’ lead to 7-6 going into halftime, as part of 16 unanswered points to close the game. Miami picked up where it left off to start the second half with a touchdown drive, followed by a pair of field goals on the next two drives. That was the game.
2. Emotions riding high
After Cincinnati punted to finish a third straight three-and-out series, Mike Thomas was flagged for a second straight hit on Jakeem Grant on the return, and Bengals safety Shawn Williams was hit by Mack Hollins on a blindside block during the play, both of which added fuel to a fire that already was sparking. The bench cleared, coaches ran on the field and Williams, Hollins and Miami’s DeVante Parker all ended up ejected with 12:07 left.
“I think our guys got put in some tough spots,” Taylor said when asked his response to those who think the game shows he has lost control of the team. “Those are two core guys that got kicked out of the game, Shawn Williams and Tyler Boyd. We don’t want that. We need those guys. We count on those guys, and everyone has to maintain their composure, myself included, so we just have to look at what happened. I know they were both very frustrated in what was going on. Shawn got hurt there on a blindside block and T.B. felt like he got hit late out of bounds, but we’ve got to maintain our composure and be better than that.”
Thomas, who was given an unnecessary roughness penalty on the preview punt return, only got charged with catch interference, offset by the blindside block penalty on Hollins and leading to a re-kick. Thomas returned as the gunner, and Taylor said after the game that Thomas meant no ill-will but was just trying to get pressure on Grant, who is part of the best punt return units in the league. He needs to do that better within the rules, Taylor said.
It took the officials a good 15 minutes to sort out the mess, which rookie receiver Tee Higgins said impacted the flow of the game.
“I guess we lost an edge,” Higgins said. “You can’t lose an edge when something like that happens. You have to stay ready, stay warm, stay focused and come out and fire.”
3. Offense fell flat
Even before all that mess, the Bengals had unraveled.
Boyd’s absence enabled Miami to move to a Cover-2 zone defense instead of playing man coverage, and the Dolphins were able to get more pressure on the quarterback for five sacks after recording just one in the first half. The adjustments took away the screen passes that helped the offense move the ball in the first half, when the Bengals had 171 yards.
Allen had connected with Boyd for a 72-yard touchdown in the first quarter, as part of his 153 yards passing. Cincinnati finished with 40 yards on 17 carries, but four carries produced only four yards in the second half and inefficiency on first down played a factor in three straight three-and-outs to start the half.
Cincinnati had 25 yards of offense in the second half. Allen left the game with 7:02 left after he had the wind knocked out of him on his fifth sack of the game. Finley replaced him, took a sack his first snap and then later threw an interception.
“I thought they did a good job making adjustments in the second half,” Allen said. “Obviously we schemed them up good and we were ready for their zero-pressure and had a lot of quick screens in the run game and stuff, but they did a good job in the second half. They were playing it differently, playing some double-coverage on certain guys and we weren’t able to execute versus some of that press-man they were showing us and we’ve just got to be better. Obviously when they make adjustments, we make adjustments but we just got out-executed.
4. Miami’s offensive edge
Miami only managed 19 points but did enough to win against an improving Bengals defense.
The Dolphins got a career-high 296 yards passing out of Tua Tagovailoa, despite him being limited in practice all week and questionable with a thumb injury that sidelined him against the Jets. They also finished with 110 yards rushing with 90 of those yards coming from Myles Gaskin, who was activated from injured reserve Friday as he was working back from an MCL sprain with three backups unavailable.
The big surprise was how well Cincinnati played on third down, matching Miami’s defensive strength. The Dolphins converted just 1 of 10 third-down plays, and they scored touchdowns on one of four trips to the red zone and settled for field goals on four drives.
“I think we had a good idea,” safety Jessie Bates said. “Coach Lou (Anarumo) had a really good idea of what they wanted to do. Tua (Tagovailoa), like I said at the beginning of the week, he doesn’t check a lot at the line as far as how Ryan (Fitzpatrick) does it. We had a really good feel for that, but in the second half I don’t think they got in a third-down situation. They were just moving the ball really well. We got to continue to preach to be more consistent. That’s something we have to continue to work on.”
5. Fighting to the end
The Bengals were literally and figuratively “fighting to the end.” Shortly after the brawl, Bates gave them a chance to make it a game late when he forced Gaskin to fumble at the 13-yard line and Vonn Bell recovered for a 37-yard return to put Cincinnati at midfield with 3:52 left.
Finley got the offense to the Miami 18-yard line but was intercepted with 1:44 left to end the game. A touchdown there and recovery of an onside kick might have led to a 2019-like finish against the Dolphins.
“It’s hard, obviously when you’re losing,” said Bates, who finished with a team-high 13 tackles, including 10 solo. “The thing I like about what we’re doing is we just continue to fight. Just continue to challenge the guys in the huddle. We give up a big play, they’re down there on the goal line and I just continue to preach ‘we cannot give up a touchdown. We cannot give up a touchdown.’ And we held our own. I think we held a team to 19 points in back-to-back weeks. It doesn’t happen a lot in the NFL. Not moral victories or anything like that, but I like the energy that we played with on defense today.”
Taylor said it was frustrating to hold an opponent to 19 points for a second straight week and not get a win, but he continues to see players putting in effort, like Bates.