The Bengals blew a chance to elbow their way into playoff position, letting a distracted and grieving team pull one out at the end.
Dan Bailey kicked a 40-yard field goal as time ran out, sending the Dallas Cowboys to a 20-19 victory on Sunday that ended the Bengals' four-game winning streak.
Cincinnati (7-6) could have moved ahead of Pittsburgh (7-6) in the chase for the second AFC wild card.
The Steelers lost at home to San Diego 34-24, giving Cincinnati an opening.
The Bengals wasted it by giving up two scoring drives in the closing minutes.
"Obviously, we would have loved to win today with them losing, and it would have given us a better chance," said quarterback Andy Dalton, who was 20 of 33 for 206 yards with a touchdown, an interception and five sacks.
The Bengals remain two games behind AFC North-leading Baltimore (9-4). They finish the season at Pittsburgh and home against the Ravens, so there's still a chance to make the playoffs for the second straight season.
A win on Sunday would have made it more likely, and they knew it.
"It would have been great to win, because we would have been better off," center Kyle Cook said. "The last few years we've won games at the end of the season when we needed it."
They couldn't beat a Cowboys team struggling with the loss of a teammate and the tribulations of another.
The Cowboys overcame a nine-point deficit in the closing minutes behind quarterback Tony Romo, who held his hand over his heart during a moment of silence to honor teammate Jerry Brown before the kickoff. The linebacker died in an auto accident early Saturday.
Defensive lineman Josh Brent, who was driving, was still jailed in Texas when the game began on Sunday, charged with intoxication manslaughter.
The Cowboys (7-6) learned about Brown's death on their flight to Cincinnati on Saturday. Coach Jason Garrett told his team that the best way to honor him was to play well in a game with playoff implications for both teams.
One of the visitors' metal lockers at Paul Brown Stadium had a strip of white athletic tape with "53 JERRY BROWN" attached to the top, a wooden stool inside sitting upside-down. Brown's No. 53 jersey was on the sideline during the game — defensive tackle Jason Hatcher held it up after Bailey's kick decided it.
It wasn't much of a celebration by an emotionally spent team.
Owner Jerry Jones described his team as grieving when it took the field. It was the second consecutive week that an NFL team was playing a day after losing a teammate. Kansas City beat Carolina 27-21 one day after linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then himself at the Chiefs' practice complex.
When Bailey's kick ended it, the Cowboys had a lot of thoughts racing through their heads.
"The last 24 hours has really been something I've never experienced," Romo said. "It's something I've never experienced, and I think a lot of guys will tell you that. It's just been a roller coaster of emotions.
"It was a very — and still is — a very difficult thing that this football team is dealing with."
The Cowboys salvaged the game by scoring on their last two drives. Romo threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant with 6:35 to go. Anthony Spencer's sack of Dalton forced a punt, and Romo completed four passes on the drive to Bailey's winning kick.
Romo finished 25 of 43 for 268 yards with a touchdown, an interception and three sacks.
"They came here in an emotional situation, and you knew they were going to fight all the way," Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "That game meant a lot to them. They played great."
Newcomer Josh Brown kicked field goals of 25, 33, 25 and 52 yards for Cincinnati.
In the end, a defense that had allowed only three touchdowns in the past four games couldn't hold on. And the Bengals made it tough on themselves by using all three of their timeouts early in the second half, leaving them unable to stop the clock on Dallas' final drive.
Notes: Bailey's game-winner was his second of the season. His 38-yarder beat Cleveland in overtime. It was Bailey's sixth game-winning FG, second in Cowboys history behind Rafael Septien's seven. ... Bryant caught four passes for 50 yards, leaving him with 1,028 yards for the season. It's his first 1,000-yard receiving season and the first by a Cowboy since 2009 (Miles Austin and Jason Witten). ... Bryant has caught a TD pass in five straight games, the longest streak of his career. ... Romo's 25 completions gave him a club-record 349 for the season. He completed his last 12 throws the previous game and his first five on Sunday, setting a club record with 17 straight completions. ... Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 89 yards on 12 carries, breaking his streak of three straight 100-yard games.
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