CLEVELAND — In the end, it wasn't as improbable as it seemed as the Bengals walked out of a deflated and silent Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday with their most resilient victory in the 131 games of the Marvin Lewis era in a 27-17 victory.
"Fans walking out of the stands and the stadium half empty with a couple of minutes left in the fourth, you can't explain it. You can't put it into words," said middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. "You're happy. Everyone did everything they were supposed to do."
Sure, it was all a little surreal. Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco were nowhere to be seen and the future was shelved with Andy Dalton on the sidelines as Bruce Gradkowski, the villain of fourth quarters in '06 and '09, led the Bengals to a late victory. And, of all people, Palmer's agent, David Dunn, walked past the Bengals locker room after the game in search of several clients that played in the game, the first time he'd been seen since the Mobile Manifesto.
But it wasn't all that improbable since the Bengals did it the way they said they were going to do it and followed the formula to perfection. If anybody had noticed while they were rolling out those preseason rankings that put the Bengals dead last behind everybody but the 1968 expansion Bengals.
The Bengals got 25 bolts and 121 yards from running back Cedric Benson as their physical offensive line wore down Cleveland's proud, new front.
They took a couple of shots deep and were rewarded with rookie wide receiver A.J. Green's first NFL catch and touchdown on the same 41-yarder.
Their rookie quarterback was going to give them an icy calmness and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was going to give them a simpler playbook easier to execute. While the Browns committed eight penalties in the first quarter-and-half, the Bengals had none and committed just three penalties on the day, only the third time in the last three seasons they've committed so few. And they didn't turn it over.
And Maualuga's run defense stuffed the Browns nine time on nine carries with the game desperate when the Bengals trailed, 17-13, following the second half's first series while their exciting, young front four melted the vaunted accuracy of Browns quarterback Colt McCoy into six incompletions on his last seven throws.
Plus, the Bengals played with that chip on their shoulder as big as the insult they heard in the middle of their own city at their own practice field during Friday's practice when someone shouted at them about how bad they were going to be, the final putdown during the longest of offseasons in franchise history.
In the end, it belonged to both trenches as the Bengals mauled a Cleveland team that was supposed to manhandle them.
"Credit goes out to people like Whitworth, Livings, Cook and Smith and the guys like that up front," Lewis said of his offensive line. "They have been around for a few years. And then the defensive line, Peko and guys like that just keep hanging in there and playing."
"We knew coming into this game the defense was going to have to carry this team; coming into this season we know that," said defensive tackle Domata Peko after the Bengals did what they've done all preseason and shut the Browns down on 3.2 yards per carry.
"Everybody was doubting us. It gives you a chip on your shoulder. It really makes you angry. I think it makes you play harder because it's you against the world. We just stuck to the game plan. We shut down (running back Peyton Hillis with 57 yards on 17 carries) and got in McCoy's face and our nickel guys were able to do that all day. I saw McCoy picking himself up off the ground, especially in the fourth quarter. That was real good."
The sacks came from safeties Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker but it was the rotating front four that beat up a Browns offensive line that had a Pro Bowler at left tackle and center and newcomers at right tackle and left guard. It didn't matter. Peko and his rotating band of tackles pushed them back and to McCoy.
"Those guys have been playing like that all year; they've been great," said cornerback Leon Hall. "The big thing was they had them a lot of times in second-and-11, and third-and-11, and we knew they had to pass."
Right end Michael Johnson was a load against Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas (as was Jon Fanene in the running game) and he tipped three of McCoy's passes. Plus, he got his last ball of the day when tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap (making life miserable for right tackle Oniel Cousins) forced the Browns to throw it right at him.
"A gift," Johnson said of what he said was a batted ball. "Coach (Mike) Zimmer has been on us since training camp to get a hand up. Especially when it's coming out quick and (McCoy)being a shorter quarterback, we were going to have our opportunities to get our hands on balls."
Zimmer's unit carried the day just like the script said, but it is the running game that is supposed to keep the Bengals offense off the field and they finally did on Benson's last carry of the day, another non-surprise if people had been watching during the preseason. The Bengals exploited left tackle Andre Whitworth's near 100-pound advantage against rookie right end Jabaal Sheard with 17 of Benson's carries to the left side.
But on the last one, the Bengals ran their signature, the power play where left guard Nate Livings pulls to the right and this time right tackle Andre Smith got a big block, along with the Cleveland secondary selling out with nothing to lose in an effort to make a big play and whiffing.
The running game had lost its way in the second and third quarters but surfaced just in time.
"You love those runs; I didn't get touched," Benson said of the TD. "The defense made adjustments as well. We got back to it. It's Jay's first day out, too. He's got to get a feel for this team. He needs to understand we can do that all day."
"That's who we are," Whitworth said. "We run the ball. Physical and don't turn it over."
Like everyone in the room, Benson felt the win was a little bigger than just a win.
"Everything happens for a reason," Benson said. "I think today was like this to mentally get this team with some momentum into next week."