MINNEAPOLIS -- The Cincinnati Bengals used the final game of the regular season to complete their long fall from the top of the American Football Conference to missing the playoffs.
After the Bengals digested their 29-21 defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings Monday night, there was agreement all around: the better team won and the Bengals deserved to watch the playoffs on television.
'We played as hard as we could,' Cincinnati Coach Sam Wyche said. 'This is going to make a tough offseason for us.'
The Bengals could have earned a wild card playoff berth at home against bitter AFC Central rival Houston with a win, but the combination of a 22-7 halftime deficit, five turnovers and some key penalties proved too much to overcome.
'I'm responsible for four turnovers tonight and I don't like it at all,' said Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason, who was intercepted three times and lost a fumble. 'Their pass rush is relentless. Considering the turnovers we committed, it's to our credit that we stayed in the game at all.'
In the first half, the Bengals turned the ball over twice and paid dearly for the mistakes.
Esiason was picked off by cornerback Darrell Fullington early in the second quarter and the Vikings, leading 9-0 at the time, quickly scored their first touchdown of the game on a Wade Wilson to Rick Fenney pass.
Driving for a last-minute score, Esiason was picked off by linebacker Scott Studwell. A long pass to Hassan Jones moved the ball to the Bengal eight-yard line, setting up Rich Karlis' fifth field goal of the game for a 22-7 bulge at the half.
Esiason's 65-yard strike to Rodney Holman early in the third quarter cut the Viking lead to 22-14. Cincinnati mounted another impressive drive midway in the third quarter, moving the ball to the Viking 11. But Chris Doleman sacked Esiason for a 13-yard loss and, on the next play, Henry Thomas forced a fumble and recovered the ball.
The Bengal defense, which allowed Minnesota to score the fist five times the Vikings touched the ball, stiffened to keep the playoff hopes flickering. Esiason's 21-yard toss to Scott Taylor made it 22-21 with 8:49 left in the game.
'We had them on the run and they knew it,' said wide receiver Tim McGee. 'We just didn't deliver the knockout punch.'
Instead, the Vikings mounted a drive that was aided by three penalties, two on cornerback Lewis Billups, to keep a Viking drive alive. On fourth and goal at the Bengal 1, Brent Novoselsky made an over-the-shoulder catch in the right rear corner of the endzone.
'Hey, if you get as far behind as we did early, you can't make any mistakes in the second half and still win the game,' said Cincinnati cornerback Eric Thomas. 'We have nobody but to blame for ourselves.'
The shock of missing the playoffs was starting to set in by the time Wyche came out to face the media.
'We have to put this game out of our minds as soon as possible,' Wyche said. 'Next year, we have to start earlier. We'll have the toughest non-training camp ever. I promise you that.'
Which is exactly what some Bengal players think is necessary.
'We need to get more focused,' Esiason said. 'Look at the team that beat us tonight. They were 8-0 at home. We lost three games at home that we shouldn't have (Miami, Indianapolis and Seattle).
'But we deserved what we got. Tonight was typical of the season.'
Linebacker Reggie Williams agreed, to a lesser extent. 'Obviously, we have some good individual talent here (six Pro Bowl representatives),' Williams said. 'In football, there are things you can control and things you can't.
'A defense can't control turnovers. So we were doing some damage control work out there. But the offense couldn't do much when they scored at the end. It was -- and still is -- a team game.'