CINCINNATI — With a chance to cap one of the greatest comebacks in Cincinnati Bengals history, sure-handed running back Joe Mixon dropped the ball on the Chargers’ 31-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Los Angeles defensive back Tevaughn Campbell scooped up the ball and sprinted 61 yards into the end zone to stop the drive and put the Chargers ahead 31-22.
That wasn’t all, as Los Angeles posted 10 more points to win 41-22 at Paul Brown Stadium — in front of more than 51,000 stunned fans.
“I don’t know If I had the ball all the way yet,” Mixon said after the game about the fumble. “It was a turnover that shifted the momentum. I take full responsibility for it. At the end of the day, that shouldn’t happen. I have to do better at ball security.”
The Bengals had the Chargers on the ropes and whipped off 22 unanswered points to close the gap to 24-22 when the turnover happened.
Cincinnati was not able to overcome the mishap.
“We knew we had done everything we could have possibly done poorly in the first half, and we were still down 11 with the ball,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “We crawled out of it and were down 24-22 in the fourth quarter … we just didn’t finish it.”
The Chargers (7-5) jumped out fast and furious and grabbed a 16-0 lead in the first quarter, thanks in part to two turnovers from the Bengals.
Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert took the opening drive and went 55 yards in nine plays, capping it off with a TD pass to Keenan Allen.
Herbert ended the day with 317 yards passing and completed 26 of 35 passes with three TDs and one pick.
The Bengals tried to answer, but quarterback Joe Burrow was stripped of the ball, which led to a turnover, a Los Angeles field goal and a 9-0 lead.
On the play, Burrow suffered a dislocated pinky finger on his throwing hand, but remained in the game.
“It was just something I had to play through,” he said. “That’s what football is … you’ve got to play through injuries sometimes.”
Burrow finished the game with 300 yards passing and completed 24 of 40 attempts and had one touchdown, two interceptions, and one fumble.
He anticipates playing next week against San Francisco.
“I don’t think I really noticed what happened in the beginning,” he added about the injury. “I think my adrenaline was pumping a little too much. And then as it went along, it got progressively worse a little bit. But I was able to play through it.”
On Cincinnati’s next drive, Burrow had wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase wide open down field.
Chase ran under the ball and was on his way to a potential score, when he bobbled and tipped the ball in the air as he tried to make the reception.
Chargers’ defensive back Michael Davis hauled in the fluttering ball for the pick.
LA then went 73 yards in five plays for the 16-0 lead.
“Chase has got some of the best hands in football,” Taylor said of his wide receiver. “It was a quirky play.”
That moment set the tone for the first half, as the Chargers went into the break with a 24-13 lead.
“To dig a hole the way that we did with turnovers, explosive plays, the opening kickoff going back plus-48 yards and things that I did were certainly unacceptable,” Taylor said. “We didn’t deserve to win today.”
One reason the Chargers were able to post 41 points was the loss of Cincinnati’s best tackler, linebacker Logan Wilson, who was carted off the field with 14:42 to go in the opening quarter with a shoulder injury.
“I think that our depth did a good job coming in there and holding the fort down and giving us a chance to get back in the game and that’s just a credit to all 53 guys that we have on the roster,” Taylor said. “All the guys making sure that they’re ready, because you never know when you’re going to get that opportunity to play, and that’s certainly not the reason we lost.”
Four turnovers and missed opportunities were the reason the team lost the game, Taylor added.
Even when Cincinnati was getting back into the contest, they seemed to get in their own way.
Burrow found Tee Higgins for a 29-yard touchdown pass with 7:39 left in the half for their first score of the day.
Taylor opted to go for the two-point conversion, but there was a breakdown in communication and a timeout was called.
Then, the Bengals were flagged for a delay of game — which made Taylor opt to kick for the extra point.
Kicker Evan McPherson missed the PAT, and Cincinnati trailed 24-6.
“Horrific (management) by me,” Taylor said. “Horrific, horrific, horrific. We were going for two, and so we were a little slow making sure we had the right personnel on the field. We ended up having to take a delay of game and ended up missing the extra point on top of it.
“It was just sloppy. It was everything. When it’s everything, it’s 100-percent me. When you turn the ball over four times – four times – you’re probably not going to win a football game.”
With the loss, the Bengals fall to 7-5, but hold the second spot in the AFC North Division — and will host the 49ers next week at 4:25 p.m.