CINCINNATI – A golden opportunity gone.
The Cincinnati Bengals could be in first place in the AFC North today, but instead find themselves in third — after a 26-23 overtime loss to San Francisco on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals (7-6) had an opportunity to jump into the division lead after Cleveland held on to beat division-leading Baltimore 24-22.
Now the Browns are in second place, while the Ravens remain atop the AFC North.
Two muffed punts from Cincinnati kick returner Darius Phillips led to 10 points for the 49ers, including a touchdown before halftime for a 17-6 lead.
“We’ve got to do a better job of protecting the ball all around,” said Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor. “It’s kind of been our Achilles’ heel in a lot of our losses. They’ve all happened different ways and today that’s just the way it happened. But we know that’s unacceptable, and we’ve got to be better at taking care of the football, period.”
Cincinnati rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force the overtime period.
Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase made a 17-yard tight-rope catch in the back of the end zone from Joe Burrow on a fourth-and-five situation that cut the 49ers’ lead to 20-13 halfway through.
“That was such a great play by him,” Burrow said. “I started rolling out left and then reversed field and he did a great job of adjusting to the ball in the air. That was one of my favorite touchdowns that we’ve thrown together. “
The Bengals rallied again when Burrow led a drive that started deep in their own territory.
He connected on two passes of 20-plus yards to Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd to put his squad in striking range with just over a minute in regulation.
Burrow, who ended the day with 3489 yards passing on a 25-of-34 performance and two TDs, lobbed a pass to Chase for a 32-yard score — and the game was knotted 20-20.
In overtime, Burrow found Higgins for a 26-yard gain, and then connected with C.J. Uzomah for 23 yards.
Cincinnati had the ball on the San Francisco 26-yard line, and opted to run two plays that were followed by Burrow getting sacked.
The Bengals settled for a 47-yard field goal from Evan McPherson with 6:15 to go in the extra period.
Taylor was asked why he did not choose to have Burrow throw to Chase, who had caught two scores in the fourth quarter — and since his QB was 11 of 15, with 210 yards and a passer rating of 154.8 in the second half.
“We have a quarterback that can win us a lot of games, and there’s maybe one more pass instead of a run there,” Taylor said. “If we hit that run, I feel great about it. But we didn’t. And so, then you go back to hindsight.”
San Francisco went to work and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo connected with Brandon Aiyku on a 12-yard pass that was originally called out of bounds by officials.
But after review, the call was overturned and ruled a touchdown to win the game.
Tight end George Kittle was a thorn the Cincinnati’s side all night, and finished the game with 151 yards receiving on 13 catches and one score for the 49ers.
“We just couldn’t stop him,” Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said, about Kittle. “He was making a lot of plays over the middle and running after the catch. We feel like we take those plays away and we’re in a better position.”
The Bengals lost key defensive lineman Trey Hendrickson early in the contest with a shoulder injury.
The defensive end sacked Garoppolo on the 49ers’ first drive of the game to extend his streak to nine straight games with a sack.
It’s the longest in franchise history and puts him in a tie for fourth place in NFL history.
“It hurts,” said Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard of Hendrickson’s injury. “Trey is such a huge part of our defensive line. We rallied together for him.”
Cincinnati’s best linebacker, Logan Wilson, did not play on Sunday after he was carted off the field last week against the Chargers.
Both Chase and running back Joe Mixon went past the 1,000-yard mark in receiving and rushing respectively on the day.
The Bengals head to Denver on Sunday to try to get back into the playoff hunt.
“I mean every loss we’ve had, they all feel equal,” Taylor said. “We feel like we should have won them all – every game we played in. But I think that’s the NFL right now. Trust me, I say that all the time – ‘I can’t believe we lost.’”