ORCHARD PARK, N. Y. — The Bengals defense and special teams regained their signature composure at the most critical of times Sunday and coolly beat back journeyman quarterback Thad Lewis's bid to spring an upset at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
And for their efforts the Bengals crafted the club's first overtime victory in four years and nine days to take over sole possession of the AFC North.
"It was huge," said right end Wallace Gilberry. "Last week didn't mean anything if we didn't get this one. We got it. That's two in a row, we know we can win on the road. Our confidence is building."
A week after pinning the Patriots back in the last two minutes with a 57-yard punt in a driving rain, Kevin Huber put the Bills on their 7 in overtime with a 30-yard popup.
After left tackle Cordy Glenn false-started with Bengals right end Michael Johnson hovering, the Bengals staged a three-and-out that forced a Brian Moorman punt from the goal line, and that led to Brandon Tate's 29-yard return for Mike Nugent's 43-yard field goal, all in the wake of second-half disasters that featured Nugent missing a 34-yarder and Adam Jones trying to catch and then juggling a punt at his own 5.
But Johnson teamed with defensive tackle Geno Atkins to stop running back C.J. Spiller for a three-yard gain on a very big first down from the 4.
"We had to play the hardest we played in five weeks (on that drive)," Gilberry said. "When we went back on the field in the overtime, I was still mad the way (regulation) ended. (Johnson) told me, 'It's a new game. There's nothing you can do about it. Calm down Gil.' That calmed me down and we went out and did it."
Johnson thought the Bengals had their shot once Glenn moved.
"They gave us a free play," Johnson said. "Any time you get a team pinned like that you're thinking that's at least three points for us. They got us a couple of times on the outside and then we settled down."
Johnson had been warning his teammates all week about the prowess of Lewis, a former Duke quarterback Johnson played against three times while he was at Georgia Tech.
"A lot of people don't know about him … but he threw for something like 10,000 yards," Johnson said. "No matter where you're playing on the collegiate level that means you have to have some talent.
"I told them he wasn't a pushover. He's a smart guy with some athletic ability who'll stay in the pocket to make throws."
That's what Lewis did on first down from the Bengals 40 with 1:08 left in regulation when he stunned the Bengals with wide receiver Marquise Goodwin running past cornerback Terence Newman for a touchdown that tied it. Newman had missed a couple of series earlier in the second half, but he didn't use his hip as an excuse.
"I wasn't playing smart football. I have to give credit where credit is due," Newman said. "The guy ran the route, he threw the football, but I wasn't being very smart. This is my 11th year. I was trying to do too much, do something that I shouldn't do. Obviously, I paid for it."
The Bengals don't often give up plays like that. Last season they allowed just two touchdown passes of at least 40 yards. The play clearly disturbed Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis even though the defense kept Thad Lewis relatively in check, holding him to 19-of-36 passing for 216 yards and a forced fumble.
But the throw to Goodwin, a 47-yarder to wide receiver T.J. Graham racing past cornerback Adam Jones, and a fourth-and-eight touchdown from the 22 with tight end Scott Chandler beating left end Carlos Dunlap down the seam had Lewis steaming.
"Make him throw the ball where we don't want him to, and take away the deep ball. (Lewis) completed three balls today; two of them were deep, and basically a factor in the game," Lewis said of the defense's strategy. "Otherwise it was going to be a naked bootleg screen team and quick throws outside, which he wasn't that effective at. We have to understand that. What do we have to take away to win the football game? Those are the things that are important. Make that guy drive the length of the field to beat us. Don't give up the game on one play."
But the composure resurfaced, just like it did in the first half when the Bengals pulled off their second one-yard stand in as many weeks.
Last week it may have saved the game when three stops from the 1 forced a field goal in a 13-6 victory over the Patriots. Sunday it definitely won the game when SAM linebacker James Harrison basically forced a turnover when he came up with his first Bengals sack on fourth down as he closed off the right sideline following a play-action fake to preserve a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Harrison, who also teamed with WILL backer Vontaze Burfict to stop running back Fred Jackson on second down, helped blunt a drive in which Buffalo effortlessly drove down the field. The Bills used their zone blocking, as well as some zone-read handoffs, to chew up 61 yards on the ground alone.
But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer made an adjustment at halftime when it came to reading the read. Gilberry said the Bengals had practiced during the week reading the quarterback. At half, Zimmer switched it up and the defense read the running back, and in the second half the Bills rushed for just 44 yards on 11 carries after getting 86 on 21 in the first half.
"It put pressure on the whole defense. He called guys out, they stepped up and rose to the occasion," Gilberry said.
Burfict had a particularly rough day, but he managed to keep it together down the stretch. Called for three personal fouls that included a facemask, he still managed to come up with big stops among his team-high 11 tackles and fumble recovery of a Dunlap force that set up a touchdown.
"I'm pretty sure (the NFL) is going to review it, but I didn't think it was a flag," Burfict said. "The quarterback dove, I had left my feet already and he dove at my legs. They said I led with my helmet. The other one was a facemask, my facemask had been pulled. I just reached my arm out and got his facemask. The helmet-to-helmet one I thought I had the ball in my hands."
The Bengals were rewarded with first place in the AFC North all by themselves.
"We can't worry about what other teams are going to do. We have to write our own destiny for lack of better terms," Newman said. "If we go out and win football games everything will be all right. We have to keep believing in each other, plugging away.
"For us to come out and get our first road victory against an AFC opponent it's a big one and a tough-fought one. We went into overtime; it should give us confidence we can win close games down the stretch. I think it's just a confidence-booster for everybody."
It was a classic team win in the sense when one of the units struggled, one of the others picked it up. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis sees a team still developing.
"That's us," BJGE said of not closing out a game the Bengals led, 24-10, in the fourth quarter. "We haven't done that yet. We haven't put our foot down and stepped on the throat, but we'll continue to grow. We fought hard today. It was a big road win, our first one and it was against a good AFC opponent. We knew it was going to be a fourth-quarter game, and we were able to do whatever it took to win in overtime."