INDIANAPOLIS -- In terms of the end result, there isn't a whole lot to differentiate between explosion and implosion. After all, the final product is pretty much the same tragic ending.
But the Cincinnati Bengals, who treat the football as if it were pumped full of nitroglycerine instead of helium, have become particularly expert at parsing the two terms of volatility. And, alas, they seem to know the difference between them intimately, and are especially familiar with the latter.
"We've got to get guys having fun again and just playing football," acknowledged offensive left tackle Andrew Whitworth following the Bengals' 23-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday afternoon. "We keep putting ourselves in a big hole, and then we expend a lot of energy trying to dig our way out. We're just not a confident bunch right now. We have to put the smiles back on people. We're still capable of playing well. I mean, this is way too good a team to be going through this."
Unfortunately, when you shoot high, sometimes you lose your aim and wind up wounding yourself in the foot. In the case of the blundering Bengals, they limped out of Lucas Oil Stadium toward the convoy of idling buses outside the stadium, waiting to ferry them back to Cincinnati, where another round of self-destruction could lead to a fatal bout with self-doubt.
In losing for the sixth straight time, and falling to a 2-7 mark that is the worst in the AFC outside of next week's opponent, Buffalo, the bumbling Bengals turned the ball over five times, and the miscues led to 17 Indianapolis points. That included a "pick six" by Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden, whose 31-yard return for a score late in the first quarter allowed Indianapolis to jump to a comfortable 10-0 advantage, and was the first of three Carson Palmer interceptions.
That touchdown equaled the number of times the Indy offense reached the end zone -- on a 3-yard run by fourth-string tailback Javarris James -- as a unit beset by injuries struggled throughout. Attrition might finally be catching up to the Colts, whose "next man up" mantra might actually be running short of ambulatory bodies, and who might not have won on Sunday against a sturdier opponent.
The Colts nearly returned another interception for a touchdown, a score that would likely have secured the game and rendered moot the late dramatics, but the officials ruled on replay review that Indianapolis linebacker Tyjuan Hagler had been barely brushed by Palmer on a play originally called a touchdown.
Rallying late, as they did in their loss to Pittsburgh last Monday night, the Bengals twice got the ball back trailing 23-17, after recovering an onside kick. But rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham fumbled away one opportunity, struggling for extra yards after a reception. And, on the final last-gasp series, that originated at the Cincinnati 21-yard line with just 26 seconds remaining, Palmer was sacked on consecutive plays by Colts' ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.
"You've got to win close games in the NFL ... and that's (escaped) us this year," said middle linebacker Dhani Jones, after another gut-wrenching defeat. "There really isn't that much that separates the teams in this league, like everybody always says, so you've got to learn to win the tough ones where every play makes a difference."
The Bengals thought they had solved that close-game riddle a year ago, but they have reverted in 2010 into their old "Bungles" persona.
There are a lot of reasons for the Bengals' collapse this year, but their failure to win the tight contests that seem so prevalent in the league is certainly one of them. Last season, when Cincinnati surprised a lot of pundits by claiming the AFC North with a 10-6 record, the Bengals were 6-3 in games determined by seven points or fewer. This season, Cincinnati, which has never won consecutive division titles, but was tabbed by many to be among the AFC elite, is 1-5 in seven-point outcomes.
The six consecutive losses have come by an average of only 5.5 points. Just one of the defeats was by more than seven points. Outside of a season-opening 38-24 loss at New England, the Bengals have not been defeated by double digits. Two of their losses were by three points, and the last two have been by six points.
"We keep getting close ... but just can't close the deal," said second-year strong-side linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Close might describe the games the Bengals have played of late but it likely wouldn't be the term used to assess the state of the Cincinnati locker room or the dynamics of the club right now. Palmer, who missed two days of practice this week as he fought to recover from injuries, underwent a painkiller shot in his right shoulder before the game, ostensibly to counter the nettlesome soreness he has been experiencing. But the veteran quarterback, who simply hasn't been the same player since suffering an elbow injury in 2008, might need a much stronger pain-killer to treat the burns he's suffered from being tossed under the bus by some of his teammates and a few members of club management.
Embattled coach Marvin Lewis, who is working without a contact for 2011, and is unlikely to get an extension offer anytime soon, referred obliquely after the game to "mak(ing) sure we're seeing things through the same eyes." Palmer allowed that there was "miscommunication" on all three interceptions. Gresham, who was the target on Hagler's pickoff, conceded he ran a sloppy route. Wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco combined for 11 catches, and the latter had his best outing (seven receptions, 86 yards, one touchdown) in nearly a month. But the two veteran receivers are notorious freelancers, and that hasn't helped an offense that is trying to incorporate a lot of new parts in 2010. One glaring Sunday shortcoming: The Cincinnati running game, which managed just 30 yards on 19 attempts, outside of a 42-yard dash by Brian Leonard on a fake punt.
Although there is plenty of culpability to spread around for the Bengals' collapse, Palmer and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski seem to be the whipping boys of choice by the club's detractors.
"All I know," said Hayden, "is they're still an explosive team."
Well, at least he got the "plosive" part right.