INDIANAPOLIS — The stage was set for a final-minute comeback when sure-handed tight end Jack Doyle committed a costly fumble that cemented the Cincinnati Bengals’ 34-23 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s season opener at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Doyle caught Andrew Luck’s third-and-15 pass for a 15-yard gain and what would have been a first down at the Bengals’ 15, but Bengals backup safety Clayton Fejedelem forced the fumble with a timely hit and then scooped and scored on an 83-yard touchdown return with 24 seconds remaining.
“I got an opportunity to hit him in the chest,” Fejedelem told Bengals.com. “Ball dropped. And the rest is history. … That’s the stuff you live for.”
Watching on the sideline and fearing the worst with the Colts threatening, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton admitted, “It was relief at that point.”
Fejedelem, a third-year special teams standout, was thrust into the lineup after Bengals safety Shawn Williams was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Luck in the first quarter. Williams greeted Fejedelem with a hug outside the locker room.
“My route calls for about a 10-yard route, so I was trying to transition there and didn’t put the ball away,” said Doyle, a sixth-year pro who made his first Pro Bowl last year. “And that’s what happens when you don’t put the ball away in the NFL. I know that and I can’t let that happen.”
The final turnover completed a Bengals comeback from 13 points down in the third quarter as the visitors scored the game’s final 24 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter, to spoil the head coaching debut of the Colts’ Frank Reich and Luck's first regular-season game in 20 months.
“Tough loss,” Reich said. “Tough one to swallow.”
Game-changing mistakes were a consistent theme in this matchup of young teams — the Bengals’ roster has the league’s youngest average age of 25.2 years, which is what the Colts’ average age would be if not for having the NFL’s oldest player, 45-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri.
An opening mistake on the game’s second offensive play resulted in a touchdown-saving tackle after Dalton was intercepted by Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II. The defender had only the passer to get by for a score, but Dalton tripped up Moore after a 32-yard return to the Bengals’ 7.
Then the Colts failed to convert as Luck responded two plays later with his own poorly thrown pass that was intercepted by Bengals linebacker Preston Brown.
“Certain things felt different,” Luck said, who missed 2017 with a shoulder injury. “I was very excited to play. … I was certainly a little bit emotional before the game, and I wish we would have won. I was too careless with the ball at certain times. When we really had a chance to put some points up and make it I think an insurmountable lead, we didn’t. But I had fun. I love this team. We’re going to be alright.”
His early mistake aside, Luck flourished in Reich’s new quick-hit offense with his head coach calling the plays as the quarterback connected with nine different receivers in completing 39-of-53 passes for 319 yards and two TDs. The pass completions are a career-high for the seventh-year pro. The Colts converted 11 of 17 third downs (64.7 percent), their best efficiency since Nov. 4, 2012.
“Andrew looked great,” Reich said. “We were really good on third down. Passed the ball well. We’ve got to be better in the red zone and come away with touchdowns and not field goals. Obviously, our goal is to always have zero turnovers going into the game.”
The Bengals trailed 16-10 at halftime after Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green lost one of his two fumbles and the Colts capitalized with a Luck 26-yard TD pass to tight end Eric Ebron on the ensuing series. Vinatieri added three field goals, including a 51-yarder just before intermission.
But a year after the 4-12 Colts blew halftime leads in seven of nine games, history repeated itself. The Bengals’ comeback started after Luck hit Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton for a 5-yard TD pass to make it 23-10 early in the third quarter.
Dalton and Green redeemed themselves with a 38-yard TD pass as Green split both Colts safeties on the deep ball to cut the deficit to 23-17.
“Andy played his butt off,” Green said, “and gave us the best chance to win.”
Dalton completed 21-of-28 passes for 243 yards and two TDs. His first scoring pass in the second quarter was to John Ross for the second-year wide receiver’s first NFL catch and touchdown.
After Vinatieri was short on a 55-yard field goal attempt, the Bengals drove 55 yards in seven plays with running back Joe Mixon diving over the pile for a 1-yard score. Kicker Randy Bullock converted the extra point to give the visitors a 24-23 lead with 11:07 remaining.
Mixon was a catalyst throughout with 95 yards rushing on 17 carries as well as 54 yards receiving on five catches. Green led the Bengals with six catches for 92 yards.
A Bullock 39-yard field goal in the final quarter forced the Colts into an all-or-nothing final drive for a possible touchdown. Luck, a three-time Pro Bowl star who has engineered 18 game-winning drives including 14 in the final quarter, drove his team 45 yards with nine short-range completions.
Then came the fateful pass to Doyle, who had seven catches for 60 yards. Fejedelem eluded Luck’s diving tackle attempt and had nothing but open field the rest of the way.
“That was a four-quarter football game,” said 16th-year Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. “Obviously from the tackle Andy (Dalton) makes in the first quarter to the play there at the end of the game, the return for a touchdown. Front to back, four quarters of football.”
The Bengals, 7-9 last season, improved to 8-8 in season openers under Lewis. They host Baltimore (1-0) on Thursday night.
The Colts, who dropped their fifth consecutive season opener, are at Washington (1-0) next Sunday.
“There’s no negative thoughts,” Ebron told colts.com. “I thought we were going to win. I don’t breathe negative thoughts. I don’t talk negative. It’s always positive. We’ve got 15 more games, we’ll get over that and move on.”