The Bengals offense has been wildly inconsistent this season, lurching from game to game, half to half, even from series to series with giddy highs and crushing lows. But the one constant has been the Fountain Square reliability of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton in the fourth quarter and Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium another one of their last drive Houdinis was enough to escape the ever intoxicating spell of FitzMagic.
"Those guys are the GOATs. They've been here for a long time," said tight end C.J. Uzomah after they struck again with 33 seconds left in the last-play 37-34 win over the Buccaneers at Paul Brown Stadium. "Andy knows where A.J. is going to be and A.J. is always in the right place."
These guys have had a better month than Duke Energy. Back on Sept. 30 Green went diving and sliding across the end zone for the 13-yard TD catch with seven seconds left that beat the Falcons. The next week at PBS against the Dolphins Dalton found Green over the middle for a 15-yard gain on second-and-13 and three plays later with 3:30 left Randy Bullock kicked the winning field goal. The next week at PBS Green and Dalton hit the Steelers on two straight plays totaling 30 yards to set up the go-ahead score on the next snap with 78 seconds left. The Steelers wiped it all out in the next minute and they were iced for 60 more minutes last week in Kansas City.
But in a 34-34 game Sunday and Bengaldom wondering if old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick had come back ten years later to blow up a season with a ridiculous 194 yards in 17 minutes, Uzomah found himself smiling with 33 seconds left and the Bengals facing first-and-10 from their 36 when he saw the Bucs were in a two-deep zone.
"During the play, I'm like, 'A.J., is getting the ball right here,'" Uzomah said. "I already know it. I'm running my route and I already know it. It's cool to see that connection."
Dalton dropped a 23-yarder behind the linebacker and in front of the secondary: "I threw it up there and let A.J. go get it."
After Dalton spiked the ball with 17 seconds left, he wanted to get the ball to Green on a slant and he knew he had a shot with the Bucs in man and No. 22, De'Vante Harris, a cornerback trying to cut off the slant. He bodied up Green, but Green muscled inside and Dalton led him enough for one of those sliding 11-yarders Dalton makes sure only Green can catch.
"He was holding me like crazy," Green said. "Andy threw me two great balls."
"At that point in the game, that's what I'm thinking," Dalton said. "Getting him the ball. A.J. did a great job fighting through the contact."
There were plenty of heroic straight men on offense. Uzomah, for one, re-injured his shoulder picking up a first-quarter blitz but came back in after an ever brief hiatus, knowing it would have to be pretty bad if he couldn't play for a team down to three tight ends. With left guard Clint Boling's back going out, Christian Westerman played most of the second half.
And after running back Joe Mixon jolted for a career-high 123 yards, the Bengals turned to rookie running back Mark Walton on that last drive. The coaches may not have been enamored with Mixon's one-handed drop of a third-down screen pass on the previous drive, but beyond that they have crafted a Giovani Bernard-like role for Walton on hurry-up drives and his three-yard run on third-and-one was the play before the 23-yarder as he gets more and more confidence.
And there was wide receiver Tyler Boyd, a guy that has to start getting some Pro Bowl votes. For the second time this season he racked up a career-high for yards. This time it was 138 on nine catches that included a third-down touchdown as the Bucs paid the price for shading to Green.
"I didn't get any double teams. A lot of it was going to A.J., so I knew this could be my game and I could make a lot of plays," Boyd said. "It was creating different mismatches. At the end of the game you could see how they stopped doubling A.J. and started playing a lot more zone and A.J. started going off."
No one could put a finger on why the offense was so good in the first half with 27 points and more than 300 yards on 36 snaps and so bad in the first half with 45 yards and one first down until the final 65 seconds. Maybe recalling that Mixon ran it four times for minus-four yards in the first four series of the second half, Dalton said, "We'll look at it, correct it and make sure we get rid of the third-and-12s."
Green said the Bucs didn't adjust, the Bengals merely faulted and he knows they have to stay from these frightening lulls. Feast with 27 first-half points. Famine with just that last-snap field goal in the second half. Such as 27 points in the third quarter this season, 66 in the fourth.
"We happen to play our best in the clutch," Green said. "We have to fix that. We haven't really put a real complete game together this year."
But there is something about the fourth quarter. Green joked they should start each drive with a minute on the clock. Dalton said, "We've done it all year."
"As an offense, its cool knowing no matter what we're still moving the ball to get in at least field-goal range," said Uzomah, even though they had done nothing for 29 minutes. "We found a way.
Boyd says this offense's last-call heroics are uncanny.
"We go into the huddle saying the same thing every single drive," Boyd said. "But when that drive is crucial, I don't know, guys just turn into a whole different person. Everybody is bringing what they got and everybody just digs deep. I really can't explain it. When the game is on the line and you only have one opportunity, you have to take advantage of it."
Uzomah can't explain it either. He could only speak for a team dying for a bye.
"Get the win. Get the bye," he said. "Then I can soak in some Epsom salts afterwards."
Add a little shot of Green and red and it was enough to break the spell of FitzMagic.