The Bills had just gone ahead 20-13 on a 23-yard field goal by Rian Lindell early in the fourth quarter. The 17-play drive had given Buffalo's defense nine game-clock minutes of rest. So when the Bills defensive unit promptly sent Cincinnati three-and-out with 10 minutes remaining, one more long sustained drive resulting in points would have likely closed out the game. It appeared that the Bills offense had such a drive underway, but a third down catch by Stevie Johnson that resulted in a successful conversion was ruled incomplete.
Johnson ran a slant route on a 3rd-and-1 play. Nate Clements was in coverage, but Ryan Fitzpatrick put the ball where only Johnson could make a play on it. Johnson appeared to make the catch, then put one arm down to break his fall as he was going to the ground.
The officials after initially preparing to spot the ball ruled the play incomplete, prompting an immediate challenge from head coach Chan Gailey, his first of the season.
"I was a little shocked at the call because I had a pretty decent vantage point," said Gailey. "But you've got to be strong enough and good enough to overcome that."
Johnson upon hearing the incomplete call visibly disagreed as he was waving his arms on the field.
"The ball was in the same spot the whole time," said Johnson. "The ball was low, (I) caught it, secured it. The guy grabbed my arm, ball was still in my arm, same spot. My knee was down before the dude even touched me so I should've been ruled down anyway. The guy said it wasn't a catch. I don't know how."
The failed conversion forced Buffalo to punt it back to Cincinnati with 8:28 left on the clock. The Bengals went right to work. Cedric Benson rolled up 27 yards on four carries and Jermaine Gresham had a pair of catches for 43 yards on the 80-yard march with Andy Dalton capping the drive with a three-yard touchdown run out of a five-wide set to tie the game at 20.
"They were winning on first and second down," said George Wilson. "They were able to keep the game in manageable situations for their offense and their young quarterback. They did a great job of sticking to their game plan and we didn't do a good job of finishing up."
Lost in the disappointment of the third down call was the fact that Buffalo got the ball back in a tie game situation with four minutes on the clock, a pair of timeouts and the two-minute warning.
Much like the previous two weeks, the opportunity was there for the Bills to win the game late. The drive began at their own 20 and started off well with a 12-yard completion to David Nelson for a first down, followed by a seven-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to Donald Jones to set up a 2nd-and-3.
Jackson however, was dropped for a rare two-yard loss by Rey Maualuga, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles for the Bengals, to force a 3rd-and-5.
"Maualuga made some plays shooting some gaps," said Jackson. "I think that was one of the things they wanted to do, was when they got that read was just shoot gaps and he made some plays for them."
Fitzpatrick was flushed from the pocket on 3rd-and-5 and tried to hit Fred Jackson down the left sideline while running to his left, but the pass was high and glanced off Jackson's fingers despite his best effort.
Forced to punt again Buffalo's defense was entrusted with forcing a turnover for another chance at victory or preserve the tie to force overtime. On a 3rd-and-3 Dalton was forced to scramble and dove for the first down marker. The ball spot on the field had him short of the marker, but upon review the new spot awarded the Bengals a first down.
With under a minute to play fullback Brian Leonard, who had played very little delivered two big plays, a 15-yard reception down the middle of the field and a 14-yard run to the Buffalo 25 to put Cincinnati in field goal range with 25 seconds remaining.
Cincinnati let the clock run down to just four seconds before calling timeout and giving Mike Nugent the chance to win the game, which he did as time expired.
Though the Johnson incomplete call and Dalton third down conversion appeared to hand the game to the Bengals, head coach Chan Gailey reiterated how Buffalo still had chances to win or extend the game.
"We've been in worse situations that that before and played better," he said. "You've got to be able to handle that."
"I think it had more to do with us flat out not showing up in the second half," said Fitzpatrick in reference to the controversial calls. "Again I don't want to take away from what they did because they did some good things on defense and I thought they outplayed us on that side of the ball."
"This game is about winning the situations," said George Wilson. "Third down, red zone, two minute. It came down to the late fourth quarter stop that we needed and we didn't get the job done. So you've got to tip your hat to those guys for finishing the ball game."