CINCINNATI (AP) — When Jessie Bates returned an easy-as-it-gets interception for a touchdown, the Bengals seemed to have the game in hand. Ryan Fitzpatrick was just getting warmed up on the Buccaneers sideline.
Fitzpatrick took over after Jameis Winston’s fourth interception and led Tampa Bay on a late flurry that tied the game . Randy Bullock’s 44-yard field goal on the final play salvaged a 37-34 victory for Cincinnati and left the Buccaneers with a question about their quarterback.
Which one is the starter now?
“Today is not the day I need to decide that,” coach Dirk Koetter said.
He can’t put it off for long. The Buccaneers (3-4) have the NFL’s top-ranked offense but keep hurting themselves with turnovers. Winston has seven by himself in the last two games, including the four on Sunday that matched his career high. He moved back into the starting job after serving an NFL suspension to start the season, but hasn’t played up to the standard that Fitzpatrick set as his fill-in.
“I can’t play like that,” Winston said. “I was heaving balls all over the place and not giving our team a chance to win.”
The Bengals (5-3) head into their bye with a defense that’s one of the worst in franchise history so far and an offense that’s totally erratic. They were coming off a 45-10 loss in Kansas City on Sunday night that was their second-worst drubbing in coach Marvin Lewis’ 16 seasons.
They got ahead of the Bucs by 21 points with an impressive first half — Joe Mixon ran for more than 100 yards and Tyler Boyd had more than 100 yards in receptions. In the second half, they managed only 95 yards, 50 of them in the final drive.
“I’m not pleased with how we played,” Lewis said.
Five takeaways from Paul Brown Stadium:
Winston has six interceptions and a fumble in the last two games. Turnovers have been his biggest problem during his four seasons in the NFL. He has thrown at least two interceptions in five straight games, tied for most in the league since 1990. It was the third time in his career he’s thrown four in a game. The problems have been more pronounced this season: He has 10 interceptions, one fewer than all last season.
Fitzpatrick put up big numbers as the stand-in, helping the Bucs become the league’s top-ranked offense. He had only a couple of minutes to warm up before replacing Winston after the fourth interception, but he showed no rust. Fitzpatrick went 11 of 15 for 194 yards with a near-perfect passer rating of 154.9.
“It doesn’t take a lot to get this thing going,” Fitzpatrick said, moving his arm in a warmup motion.
Fitzpatrick’s 72-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans was his fifth of at least 50 yards this season, most in the NFL. DeSean Jackson caught a 60-yard touchdown pass from Winston that moved him ahead of Jerry Rice for the NFL record. He has 24 TDs of at least 60 yards. It also was Jackson’s 29th career TD of at least 50 yards, tying Randy Moss for second-most since the 1970 merger behind Rice’s 36.
In the past three games, the Bengals’ defense has allowed 481, 551 and 576 yards along with a total of 107 points. It’s the first time in franchise history that the Bengals have given more than 500 yards in back-to-back games. The Bucs’ 576 yards are the fourth-most allowed in franchise history. The club record for 500-yard games allowed is three in 2014. Up next: Drew Brees and the Saints.
“We gave up a thousand yards on defense today,” Brown said.
The Bengals lost end Carl Lawson to a severely injured right knee. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick left for a while after aggravating his left Achilles’ tendon that limited him last week.
The Bengals had 307 yards and 16 first downs in the first half, when they opened a 21-point lead. In the second half, they managed only 95 yards and five first downs on six possessions. They were held without a first down in the second half until 4:22 was left in the game.