For Cincinnati Bengals center Ted Karras, the moment that stuck with him after the game was the missed assignment he didn't block in the final two minutes of the AFC championship game. For punter Drue Chrisman, it was leaving his kick right down the middle of the field. As special teams captain Michael Thomas sat at his locker, he reflected on how he didn't make a tackle on Skyy Moore's 29-yard punt return for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Bengals defensive tackle B.J. Hill was frustrated with how he got his hands on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes on his final play of the game. And then there was Joseph Ossai, the defensive end who missed his entire rookie season last year due to injury and developed into one of the best hustle players on the Bengals.
On Sunday, the Chiefs beat the Bengals, 23-20, at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC championship game to advance to the Super Bowl. Ossai committed an unnecessary roughness penalty with 17 seconds remaining. Ossai finished his diving tackle attempt on Mahomes after the quarterback stepped out of bounds, which handed the Chiefs a first down.
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Ossai's 15-yard penalty put the Chiefs in field goal range, and kicker Harrison Butker snuck a 45-yard field goal just over the crossbar for a last-second win.
"I've got to learn from experience," Ossai said." I got to know not to get close to the quarterback when he's close to the sideline if there's anything that could cause a penalty in a dire situation like that. I got to do better."
The 2022 Bengals were a team on a mission that rolled through the second half of the regular season and into the AFC title game as the hottest team in the NFL.
The Bengals were facing a quarterback with a sprained ankle, and they had three rookie cornerbacks guarding their star receivers. The Bengals still missed chance after chance in a disappointing finish to the season.
Late fourth quarter meltdown leads to the end of 2022 Bengals season
The meltdown started with 1:27 left in the fourth quarter. After 58 minutes where the Bengals couldn't stop Chiefs All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones and Mahomes was making one explosive play after another, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had the ball in a tie game.
For the Bengals, that should have been enough. Burrow had his chance to lead the most legendary game-winning drive in team history, but the Bengals couldn't protect him.
"At times, we weren't at our best," Karras said. "But we battled and had a chance to win at the end. We didn't get it done… We didn't perform our best when it counted the most. We had a chance to win at the end and we didn't."
The drive started at the Bengals' 6-yard line, and then Burrow found wide receiver Tee Higgins for a first down. On 2nd and 7, Burrow dropped back to pass. Jones powered up the middle to hit Burrow, who was trying to throw the ball away. He was called for a pass interference penalty, setting the Bengals back to their own 10-yard line.
"I'll think about that all offseason," Karras said. "We had the (linebacker) play to the left, so I had to follow him for a second. I should have gotten there faster. I thought he might be wrapping around, they had been plugging a lot all day. I tried to make it back. It's our assignment. I had to honor it. Would have liked to make a faster decision and go back to 95."
The Bengals got one more first down on a 23-yard pass to tight end Hayden Hurst. Then, they faced third and 8 from the Bengals' 35-yard line. Jones rushed right around Bengals right tackle Hakeem Adeniji, one of three backup offensive linemen in the game.
Burrow took his fifth sack of the game. Even though the Bengals were trying to give Burrow a shot to get rid of the ball quickly, the Chiefs recorded 12 quarterback hits.
"Chris Jones is one of the best defensive linemen in the league, and he played like it," Bengals left guard Cordell Volson said. "We've got to be better."
The Bengals had to punt with 41 seconds left in regulation. Chrisman kicked the ball down the middle, expecting a gust of wind to carry it to the sideline. But the punt stayed straight. Moore fielded it at the 20-yard line and had four teammates paving a lane for him. He raced to the Chiefs' 47-yard line, setting up a short field with one of his best returns for the season.
"If it's five yards further back, who knows if that field goal goes in?" Chrisman said. "I would have loved to get more (yards) on that punt. Ideally, you'd love that punt out of bounds. I was hoping the wind would push it more left. It stayed in the middle of the field, which is not the ideal scenario in that situation."
Thomas also took ownership on the play, saying the Bengals' special teamers shouldn't have given Moore that lane.
"As a punt unit, we have to be able to not give up a big return in that situation," Thomas said. "That starts as a captain and a (personal protector on the punt unit), that starts with me. You've got to alert guys a little better. You've got to find a way to get out myself and go stop it."
On first down, the Chiefs ran the ball. The clock ticked down to 21 seconds. On second down, Mahomes threw an incompletion. Then on third down, as Mahomes dropped back in coverage, he had nowhere to throw the ball.
In the second half, the Bengals' defense got stops on four of the Chiefs' first five drives. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was mixing up coverages to confuse Mahomes, and the Bengals executed the game plan perfectly. Mahomes was playing with a sprained ankle, and the Bengals forced him to wait in the pocket and make quick decisions into tight windows.
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Except this time, on 3rd and 4 from the Bengals' 47-yard line with 17 seconds left, Mahomes took off. He was hobbling on the field for most of the fourth quarter, but he found a way to rush for a 5-yard gain. He got the first down, but the Chiefs would have been well out of field goal range without the late hit from Ossai.
Earlier this season, Anarumo had Ossai stand up in the team meeting room. Anarumo had the entire team applaud Ossai for his mindset. In October, Anarumo said of Ossai, "(He doesn't) want to let (his) teammates down."
As he spoke to the media after the game, Bengals defensive tackle BJ Hill - who just missed a sack of Mahomes on the third down play - stood right next to him and supported the rookie.
Hill said, "He played his butt off the whole game."
The veterans on the Bengals defense took the same stance in supporting the second-year defensive end.
"He's playing his heart out," Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said. "I'm proud of him. The whole team has his back. He's playing with a lot of effort. He'll learn from it and grow from it."
"That's what (Ossai) does," safety Jessie Bates said. "He runs to the ball."
"He's fighting on the ground all game," safety Vonn Bell said. "That's what you preach for. He's fighting. You can't blame it on one person. I want him to keep going, build on this and remember the feeling. I told him there have been tough losses before and to fuel it."
Butker then made the 45-yard kick, ending one of the most special seasons in Bengals history.
'Our goal is to win the Super Bowl': Special 2022 Bengals season comes to a close
Ever since the Bengals lost the Super Bowl last season, Burrow described a "fuel" that's been in the locker room all season. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor had never seen such a close, focused team. Every training camp practice, Friday walkthrough and regular season game was a step in a season that was all about winning the Super Bowl when the Bengals returned to it.
Only the Bengals won't get that chance. Even though the Bengals were a more talented team than they were last year, even though the Chiefs' best two players were playing through injuries and even though the Bengals were playing some of their best football in franchise history, their season ended earlier than it was supposed to.
"Our goal is to win the Super Bowl," Taylor said. "To be seconds away from getting back there and watching them celebrate is horrible because this team has invested so much to get back to this point."
The Chiefs delivered one of the most painful losses in Bengals' history. Burrow said he plans to be in Cincinnati for the long run, but you never know how many times you'll get this clear of a shot at the Super Bowl.
Contract statuses leave questions about 2023 Bengals
This was supposed to be the year for the Bengals. Burrow could be playing his last year on a rookie contract. Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell, Germaine Pratt and Hayden Hurst are among the key Bengals' players in contract years. The Bengals will soon need to make tough decisions about players like Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon and Logan Wilson.
This was the year when the Bengals brought nearly every key piece back from a Super Bowl team. This was the year where they had cap space to fix their biggest flaws in free agency. Burrow was playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL, and the Bengals entered the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak. Then, they outpowered a division rival and blew out a Buffalo Bills team that started the season as the Super Bowl favorite.
None of that matters now.
"Every loss, you learn from," said Burrow, who completed 26 of his 41 passing attempts for 270 yards. "Just like every win. We'll watch the film, make our corrections and get better."
This year's Bengals were a much better team than the one that upset the Chiefs last season and advanced to the Super Bowl. The defense was more experienced. The run game was more efficient. Burrow learned how to avoid sacks and maintain a consistent offense no matter what the defense threw at him.
After the Bengals lost the Super Bowl last year, Burrow reflected on a lesson that he learned from former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. While watching a documentary on the Hall of Famer, Burrow realized that you can still celebrate a good run even if you don't win it all in the end.
This year's Bengals set a standard that the franchise had never seen before. Now, losing an AFC title game to the No. 1 seed feels like a disappointment, and that's the flip side of the incredible expectations that Burrow makes possible. Burrow and this version of the Bengals have changed what football means to the city of Cincinnati, but now there's more urgency than ever to finally win it all.
"I was here when it was all the way down to the dirt," Bates said. "Nobody believed in us. Being able to be a part of something special like that, you can't ask for anything better. I gave it my all. And I know my teammates gave me their all. It's the love I have in this locker room that makes this so hard."
The 2022 Bengals survived three injuries to the offensive line, played without star cornerback Chidobe Awuzie for half of the season and overcame an 0-2 start to the season. They earned a spot on the big stage against the Chiefs, but then, for the second straight year, they suffered a devastating loss in the playoffs in the final seconds.
In the locker room, it took a while for most of the players to get up and change out of their jerseys. Taylor went around the entire locker room and told every player he loved them.
When he left the locker room for the first time, he was greeted by the sound of a "Chiefs" cheer coming from the Lamar Hunt Trophy celebration.
"The expectation is always to be in this game with an opportunity to win it," Burrow said. "Obviously, this one hurts. We'll come back stronger."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Bengals' late mistakes cost them dearly in AFC title game