Damage Control

Published 1:35 am Tuesday, November 24, 2009

CINCINNATI — In their first time as an overwhelming favorite, the first-place Cincinnati Bengals fell flat. The only consolation was that it didn’t cost them in the AFC North standings.

A day later, it wasn’t very comforting.

For the first time since their bizarre season-opening loss to Denver on a tipped pass, the Bengals let one slip away in the closing minutes Sunday. A 20-17 loss in Oakland was the product of their pratfalls — eight penalties, three fumbles, a missed field goal and a defensive collapse.

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It was uncharacteristic of the rest of their season. It also showed that the Bengals (7-3) have a lot of growing up to do.

“Learning how to win in those situations is what good teams do,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said Monday. “That’s why they say the last-stretch games, the last eight games, is where good teams come out and win those games.

“I don’t think that guys really played that bad. We just made some critical mistakes.”

The rest of the division let games slip away at the end, too, leaving the AFC North locked in place with one less week to go. The Bengals are a game up on Pittsburgh (6-4) and two ahead of Baltimore (5-5) heading into a home game on Sunday against last-place Cleveland (1-9).

Cincinnati has swept the Steelers and Ravens, giving it the advantage in tiebreakers. With that, the Bengals have the equivalent of a two-game lead in the division. If they’d beaten the lowly Raiders (3-7), they’d be running away with it.

“I think it’s more disappointing because everybody lost and we also lost,” safety Chris Crocker said Monday. “We’re not happy that we didn’t get another game up on our division opponents. That’s probably the most disappointing thing. This was a team we should have beat.”

Everyone stumbled Sunday.

Pittsburgh lost at Kansas City 27-24 in overtime after Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor dropped a potential interception, allowing the Chiefs to move in range for the winning field goal. Baltimore lost at home to the Colts 17-15 after Joe Flacco threw an interception at the Indianapolis 13-yard line with 2:42 left. And the Browns had another one-for-the-ages defeat, drawing a pass interference penalty in the end zone as time ran out. Detroit got one more play and scored a touchdown for a 38-37 win.

Cincinnati? Bumbled with the rest of them.

Shayne Graham missed a 37-yard field goal on the Bengals’ opening drive of the second half. Jeremi Johnson fumbled at the Oakland 15 at the start of the fourth quarter. The defense let Oakland tie it on a touchdown pass with 33 seconds left. Andre Caldwell then fumbled the kickoff, setting up the winning field goal.

It was a pronounced turnabout for the Bengals, who were masters of the final minutes during their 4-1 start. The only blemish was a 12-7 loss to Denver in the opener, when Brandon Stokley caught a deflected pass for an 87-yard touchdown in the closing seconds.

The Bengals will be referring to that one to help them get ready for the Browns.

“Obviously we’ve done it before,” center Kyle Cook said. “We started the season with Denver, came back and fought hard and got the next couple games.”

The Bengals aren’t sure whether running back Cedric Benson will be available against the Browns because of strained hip muscles that prevented him from playing in Oakland. Rookie backup Bernard Scott made his first professional start and gained 119 yards on 21 carries.

Larry Johnson, who signed last Tuesday, got two carries for five yards. Coach Marvin Lewis said that Johnson could have a bigger role against the Browns if Benson is out again.

“We’ll see how it is and how much Larry’s involved this week,” Lewis said. “Larry only got two snaps yesterday just because of the way the flow of the game went. But if indeed we get into a similar situation this week, I suspect we’ll feel more comfortable with him in more things. So I would expect he’ll get an opportunity to play more if Cedric is down, but Bernard did a good job.”