CINCINNATI — There’s a temptation to blame the officials.
After all, a dubious incomplete pass call against Bills’ wide receiver Stevie Johnson on a ball he swears he caught and which TV replays seemed to verify, ended a key fourth quarter possession for Buffalo.
And, in the first half, an apparent fumble return for a touchdown by safety Bryan Scott, ruled a TD on the field, was called an incomplete pass after review.
Finally, on the game’s last possession, a 3rd-and-3 scramble by Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton, which officials ruled had come up short, upon review, was called a first down.
Three snaps later, Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent kicked a game-winning 43-yard field goal.
BUT THE Bills needn’t look at referee Gene Steratore and his crew as the reason their unbeaten start ended with a 23-20 loss to the Bengals on the game’s final play Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.
A glance in the mirror would do just fine.
This is a game Buffalo could have won ... maybe should have, considering coach Chan Gailey’s crew was up 17-3 at intermission and still had an 11-point lead with barely 20 minutes to play.
However, the stats tell a different story.
Cincinnati held a 185-yard advantage on offense for the game and outgained the Bills a numbing 293-99 in the second half.
And, oh yeah, Dalton, the Bengals’ rookie, second-round draft choice went from dismal in the first 30 minutes (7-of-20 passing, two interceptions, a pair of sacks and a microscopic 15.8 passer rating) to dynamic, completing 11 of 16 throws for 182 yards, no picks, and a 17-yard TD connection with tight end Jermaine Gresham post-intermission.. He also tied the game on a 3-yard run with four minutes to play.
WHEN ASKED about the disallowed Johnson catch, Gailey maintained, “I was a little shocked at the call ... to be honest. I had a pretty good vantage point.”
And according to Johnson, on the seeming catch that would have produced a Bills’ first down in Bengals’ territory, “It was clearly a catch, I don’t know what the referees were looking at. I caught it, secured it, the ball was in my arms ... same spot. And me knee was down before (the defender) even pulled at my arm. But they said it wasn’t a catch ... how that isn’t a catch, I don’t know.
“The back judge — who missed about three or four pass interference and holding calls — said it wasn’t a catch.
“That (call) was big. We could have kept the ball, the clock running and kept on driving. Instead, we punt, give them the ball, and now the game is in their hands (for the tying possession).
BILLS’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick admitted, “We thought we were going down and score. That was a big third down ... what we thought was a conversion.”
And running back Freddie Jackson maintained of the call, “It was huge ... there were a lot of calls we feel didn’t get called (correctly).”
But, as Gailey maintained, “You’ve got to be strong enough to overcome that. We’ve been in worse situations than that and played better. You’ve got to be able to handle that.”
And even Fitzpatrick was quick to admit, “It’s not just one play. Offensively, we played very poorly today. When our defense plays that well (in the first half) we have to win games like that.
“The offense just didn’t come to play. I thought they outplayed us on (the defensive) side of the ball.”
And Jackson lamented, “We just didn’t finish.”
GAILEY was equally pointed.
“This was a game of playing average in the first half and poorly in the second half,” he maintained.
“You can’t miss that many tackles, not execute on offense, not be able to run the ball (21 carries, 83 yards) and win a football game.”
He concluded, “They were just out-physicaling us.”
And veteran outside linebacker Shawne Merriman agreed with that assessment of the second half.
“When the other team is more physical than you up front, they’re going to gain those (extra) yards,” he said of Buffalo surrendering 60 yards on 16 carries in the first half and 111 on the same number of tries in the second. “Point blank, we gout out-physicaled up front.”
And, as a result, Cincinnati muscled out one of the NFL’s three remaining unbeatens.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)