Rookie Lee Suggs ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, leading the Cleveland Browns to a 22-14 victory that eliminated Cincinnati from playoff contention.
Instead, the Baltimore Ravens clinched the AFC North title several hours before playing Pittsburgh in the final regular-season game.
A renaissance season ended in a gut-wrenching disappointment for the Bengals (8-8), who felt the pressure and reverted to form in their biggest game in 13 years.
"That's the hardest part," Pro Bowl offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "Knowing what's on the line, we've got to find a way to win these games and not come out and play scared and timid. We did it all year."
With a chance to stay in contention for at least a few more hours and clinch their first winning record since 1990, the Bengals felt the enormity of the moment and froze up.
The crowd of 65,362 - the largest ever for a Bengals game in Cincinnati -- filed out silently after Jon Kitna's final pass was intercepted by Robert Griffith with 41 seconds left.
The Bengals were in control of the division at 8-6 with two games left, but lost them both.
"We pressed," coach Marvin Lewis said. "That's a growth that we have to go through. Don't get frustrated about this and that, just keep playing.
"This was a good year. It wasn't a great year. We've got more to do."
Instead of taking advantage of the down-and-out Browns (5-11), the Bengals were uptight and out of sync. A rookie running back with a lot to prove became the undoing of a team with everything on the line.
Suggs, a fourth-round draft pick getting a chance during William Green's suspension, had a 78-yard touchdown run in the first half and a 25-yard run that put the Browns ahead to stay with 7:54 left.
"Teams passed on me 114 times," said Suggs, the 115th overall pick. "I've got to prove I'm better than a fourth-round pick, the 11th back taken. I'll carry that with me the rest of my career. On draft day, I was the most disappointed player out there."
Cleveland's makeshift offensive line punched big holes in the Bengals' defense. The Browns, who lost to Baltimore 35-0 last week, rushed for a season-high 178 yards in the first half alone.
"We talked about these situations all year long, about guys being ready to play in this type of game," Bengals linebacker Kevin Hardy said. "Everybody knew the magnitude of today."
After an opening drive that led to Rudi Johnson's 5-yard touchdown run, the Bengals' offense froze up and fumbled around.
Trailing 13-7 late in the half, the Bengals put together a drive reminiscent of their sorry past. They moved to the Cleveland 3-yard line despite three penalties on receiver Chad Johnson -- two for pass interference, one for a false start.
With 10 seconds left, the ball on the 6 and the Bengals out of timeouts, Kitna dropped to pass, held the ball too long, then took off and got sacked as the clock ran out and boos filled the stadium.
"Just a poor decision by me at the end," said Kitna, who had avoided them for most of the season. "Everything is happening so fast. On that play, it was just a mental error."
The Browns then reverted to form, failing to get a first down on three third-quarter possessions. Rudi Johnson's 2-yard run put the Bengals ahead 14-13 with 12:15 left.
Tim Couch, who lost his job to Kelly Holcomb at the season's start and faces an uncertain future, got the Browns rolling again by completing a pair of third-down passes.
Suggs then broke a 25-yard touchdown run, doing a 360-degree spin to avoid Kevin Kaesviharn, for a 19-14 lead. Brett Conway's 18-yard field goal, his third of the game, put the Browns up by eight points with 1:13 to go.
Kitna overthrew tight end Matt Schobel for the clinching interception. Kitna was 23-of-35 for 175 yards.
Chad Johnson, who had promised fans a memorable, fine-fetching touchdown celebration, failed to get into the end zone and had to leave in the third quarter to get intravenous fluids because his legs were cramping.
"It means a lot to be 8-8 and even have a chance to taste the playoffs," he said.
Closer, but not there yet.
Browns rookie Lee Suggs burns the Bengals for 186 yards rushing and two touchdowns. (AP)
|TD||Rudi Johnson, 5 Yd run (Shayne Graham kick is good), 10:57. Drive: 8 plays, 80 yards in 4:03.|
|FG||Brett Conway 42 Yd, 6:20. Drive: 9 plays, 54 yards in 4:37.|
|FG||Brett Conway 42 Yd, 5:10. Drive: 7 plays, 44 yards in 2:39.|
|TD||Lee Suggs, 78 Yd run (Brett Conway kick is good), 2:06. Drive: 2 plays, 96 yards in 0:38.|
|TD||Rudi Johnson, 2 Yd run (Shayne Graham kick is good), 12:15. Drive: 10 plays, 64 yards in 5:44.|
|TD||Lee Suggs, 25 Yd run (Tim Couch 2 Pt. Conversion pass to Dennis Northcutt failed), 7:54. Drive: 8 plays, 62 yards in 4:21.|
|FG||Brett Conway 18 Yd, 1:13. Drive: 11 plays, 49 yards in 5:32.|
|Complete Player Stats|