On the offensive side, right guard Bobbie Williams and center Kyle Cook were each holding one of left tackle Andrew Whitworth's eight-month-old Lockout Twins and on the defensive side his mates were wishing tackle Domata Peko a happy 27th birthday as the Bengals scrambled out of Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday with another Beat-The-Clock victory.
Down 10 points with 20 minutes left, the Bengals are hoping to celebrate another milestone with a playoff stretch run that resembles the 23-20 victory over the Browns for their fifth fourth-quarter victory of the season. After losing two straight to the Steelers and Ravens, the tight-knit Bengals were resilient enough to come back home and win a tight game that Williams called "a brawl."
"Typical Bengals-Browns game," Cook said after the Bengals managed to post 389 yards on the NFL's fifth-best defense that included 132 yards for their second-biggest take of the season on the ground.
The offensive line was as good a place as any to start Sunday. Like everybody else, they started shaky and gave up two sacks in the first half, the last of which resulted in a killing turnover with 33 seconds left at the Cincinnati 14 and led to a painful touchdown that put the Browns up, 17-7.
Rookie Browns end Jabaal Sheard made life miserable for right tackle Andre Smith on both the run and pass all half and he beat him for the sack and strip of quarterback Andy Dalton. But, like everyone else, Smith rebounded in the second half as the Bengals allowed no more sacks and with one-on-one protection gave Dalton time to make the two biggest throws of the game.
"He settled down and he came back," Williams said. "He figured out what he had to do and he did it."
With the Bengals trailing, 20-10, late in the third quarter, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden gambled that a formation with tight end Jermaine Gresham split wide and wide receiver A.J. Green in the slot would yield a matchup so favorable it would counteract not having an extra blocker to protect. The line held up and Gresham went up in the air to pluck a perfectly-thrown fade route for a 22-yard touchdown that cut it to 20-17.
Then with the game on the line with a minute left on a dicey third-and-eight from the Bengals 47 and everyone running routes, the line held up one-on-one again, allowing Dalton to hang in until the very end to get off the crucial 51-yard pass to Green just before he got hit up the middle.
"Trust in my technique. That was it, basically. Just use my technique more," Smith said about his adjustments. "We called the right protections and picked it up really well, and then Andy to A.J. You know how that works, usually. They're a tremendous duo together. Those guys are phenomenal."
Or, as the biggest Whitworth observed of the other twins, Dalton and Green, those guys have the 'It' factor. It was the first time they were on the field together at the end of an AFC North game and wasn't it worth waiting for?
"For the first time since I've been here, we've got some guys that make big plays at big times," Whitworth said.
Smith was far from the only Bengal to bounce back during this three-hour, 12-minute grind job. Safety Reggie Nelson saw Browns quarterback Colt McCoy float a three-yard touchdown pass over his jump with seven seconds left in the half. Little came out of the slot and the Bengals gave him a ton of room even though they looked to have eight men dropping.
"That was very tough. That definitely can't happen at the end of a half, especially when we get the ball back," Nelson said of the second-half kickoff. "We didn't want to give them any type of momentum, or anything like that. We have to watch the film and go to practice and work on that.
"It wasn't any miscommunication. It was a good offensive play they ran. We just have to do a better job to cover it."
It didn't take long. Try the first snap of the fourth quarter when Nelson came up with a huge turnover on a sliding sideline interception at the Bengals 46 forced by defensive tackle Geno Atkins's hit on McCoy on a play that set up Mike Nugent's tying 40-yard field goal.
"I figured that's where he was throwing the ball — out of bounds," Nelson said. "Obviously, McCoy didn't get enough on it to throw it out of bounds."
Smith and Nelson weren't the only guys that bounced back and didn't fold. Peko's defense that got pushed around in the first three quarters and ended up giving up a season-high 134 yards rushing stood tall in the fourth quarter.
The Browns looked ready for the kill with a first-and-10 on the Bengals 37 with 2:10 left. But middle linebacker Rey Maualuga stopped running back Peyton Hillis for three yards and end Frostee Rucker and cornerback Nate Clements combined to drop him for a three-yard loss on second down to set up a third-down incompletion that made kicker Phil Dawson's potential winning attempt a 55-yarder instead of a chip shot.
"We played smarter in the second half," Peko said. "We came in at halftime, we saw what they were doing to us, and we fixed it. They were cutting back from the front side on us in the run game. We tried to stay more disciplined on the back side and we tried to get after McCoy."
Put Clements in the comeback category, too. He had a terrible first drive, getting beat for a 36-yard play and then a 24-yard touchdown by wide receiver Jordan Norwood. But he kept after it as he always does and ended up with three tackles, two passes defensed, and in classic Clements he ripped the ball from Little over the middle on that last third down.
And there was safety Chris Crocker, walking off the field in the first half with his shoulder hanging after he tackled the 250-pound Hillis.
"My arm went dead for a second," Crocker said. "I let it come back to me and I went back in the game."
Like Crocker's arm, the Bengals came back from the dead.
"That's my thing. If I can run, if I can tackle, if I can catch, if I can help our team, I give us the best option," said Crocker, who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury. "It's a renewed sense of urgency all across the board. We knew how important this one was. I didn't want to let my teammates down because I didn't finish the season last year. That was tough. I'm going to play until I can't play anymore."
So with that kind of karma, the Bengals went to work on containing McCoy and preventing him from scrambling, along with keeping Hillis in front of them.
"They showed their hand and we just said, 'Let's take it one possession at a time and get the ball back for the offense.' That was really the big thing," Crocker said.
The Bengals kept saying what they've been saying all season in this year the comeback came back to Bengaldom.
Green: "We don't get rattled."
Peko on defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer at halftime; "He kept his composure. That's the thing about this team, we get down 10, seven, we keep our composure."
Head coach Marvin Lewis: "We seem to be comfortable being behind and fighting back. I know when that fourth quarter rolled, I said to myself, 'Well, they let us stay close into the fourth quarter. Here we go.' "
And maybe you put Gruden in the bounce-back category, too. He said he made "a couple of terrible calls," and the second-guessers in the press box were wondering why he abandoned the running game in the two series before the last one.
But like his players, Gruden hung in there. He believed in his players and his system and it was never more apparent than calling on Dalton to make the big throw on third-and-eight at the end.
"Go win it. Make a play. That's why you're here for," Gruden said. "I didn't draft you to come in here and hand the ball off."
The offense has operated so smoothly with the rookies that people tend to forget Gruden is an NFL rookie, too, when it comes to calling plays. And he was locked in just as tough a matchup as Smith on Sheard with Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, a 30-year NFL coaching veteran who once played safety for the Bengals and got his start as an injured player working in head coach Forrest Gregg's press box.
Jauron showed more Cover 2 than he had on film and Gruden had to adjust. Then he had to calm down the pass rush, so "we changed up Andy's launching points with three-, five-step drops."
Gruden beat Jauron on a first down snap late in the third quarter from the Browns 22 and the Browns leading, 20-10. Putting his faith in the wondrous athleticism of Gresham and his own multiple formations, Gruden split Gresham wide and put Green in the slot. The call was a fade to Gresham one-on-one with safety Eric Hagg.
Touchdown. With his fifth of the season, Gresham now has the most touchdown catches by a Bengals tight end since Tony McGee had six in 1997.
Gresham made like Green and won the perfectly-placed jump ball. Green makes the Bengals dangerous. Gresham makes them creative.
"Gresham is a big weapon out here. He can run just about any route a receiver can run," Gruden said. "The problem is when you use him out there you have some max protection issues, but Andy does a nice job finding quick outlets on the blitzes. It definitely is a set that gives people problems."
It was one of those days the Bengals first had to overcome their own problems. It can age people. Peko joked, "I'm 27 but I look 37."
But the kids are kicking down the stretch.
"Best gift I could get," he said. "A 'W.' "