CINCINNATI – It was a halftime show Sunday that none of the Cincinnati Bengals wanted to see.
Quarterback Joe Burrow – “Joey Franchise” as tight end C.J. Uzomah calls him – was hurt.
He was on the sideline at Paul Brown Stadium, his face contorted in pain, as he slowly pulled off the black tape trainers had used to lash his dislocated right pinkie to his ring finger.
He then tried to throw a few passes and when his attempts fluttered a bit and his finger throbbed a lot, he shook his head and a trainer approached with a couple of pair of gloves.
The black glove seemed to hurt him too much to pull all the way on and the other one never felt right when he threw.
When the second half began – with the Bengals trailing the Los Angeles Chargers 24-13 – Burrow took the field with nothing on that fabled right hand that has made so much magic the past three seasons.
In 2019, he threw the most TD passes ever in a one season of NCAA Division I football. It was the main reason LSU won the national championship and he won the Heisman Trophy.
Last year – as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft – he was showing similar brilliance as a young pro when his knee was destroyed on a hit by a Washington defender in the 12th game of the season.
This year – back from surgery and still the gunslinger – he had led the Bengals to a 7-4 start and had them in the thick of the hunt for a playoff berth.
But, just as was the case last season, he often takes a beating in games. Sunday he was sacked six times.
The first one came during the Bengals’ very first possession when the Chargers’ Uchenna Nwoso, dropped him for an eight-yard loss, stripped the ball and recovered the fumble.
It was while he was being crushed that Burrow dislocated the finger.
“I don’t think I really noticed what happened in the beginning,” he said afterward. “I think my adrenaline was pumpin’ a little too much.
“But as we went along, it got progressively worse.”
At halftime he said he was just trying to find what would enable him to keep playing: “It was a decision of make it feel better or be able to somewhat throw the ball.”
As it turned out, this wasn’t a feel-good day for the Bengals on any level.
After coming back from a 24-0 deficit to trail by just two – 24-22 – they again fell apart and lost 41-22.
In the process their playoff chances took a real hit. They are now 7-5. So are the Chargers. They both vying for a wildcard spot, but Los Angeles now holds the tiebreaker.
The game was billed as a showdown between Burrow and the Chargers dynamic second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who was the sixth pick in the 2020 draft.
Last season there had been much debate who was the better choice. Burrow was amazing people week after week until his season ended.
Herbert ended up setting several league rookie records -- most TD passes, most 300-yard games, most completions – and was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.
In this – their first head-to-head match-up – Herbert came out on top. He threw for 317 yards and three touchdowns and was intercepted once.
Burrow threw for 300 yards and one touchdown and was intercepted twice, though one pick came thanks to a Ja’Marr Chase bobble that he then batted straight into the defender’s hands.
But Burrow showed one thing Sunday.
“He’s a tough football player,” said defensive Trey Hendrickson. “He’s a hell of a football player and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Receiver Tee Higgins mirrored those thoughts afterward.
Burrow said he never considered not playing the rest of the game and he doesn’t foresee the injury keeping him out of next Sunday’s game against visiting San Francisco.
Before then the Bengals will have to regain their bearing after an off course day like we haven’t seen from them lately.
Chase has been spectacular this year, but his long ball drop ended up an interception.
Running back Joe Mixon’s first fumble in 328 straight carries was picked up and returned 61 yards for a Chargers score.
And coach Zac Taylor – after two shaky seasons here – had been looking like a miracle worker until Sunday when he admits some of his decisions were “horrific, horrific, horrific!”
Burrow said it was a frustrating day all around and when the final gun sounded, he crossed the field to talk briefly with Herbert.
“We just told each other it was a lot of fun to watch each other play,” he said. “He’s a really good player that I have a lot of fun watching.”
When they parted, Burrow did not offer a handshake for a couple of reasons.
There was that damaged finger.
And – no matter what the situation -- this was not a feel-good day for the Bengals.