Bengals bounce back into first

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Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham had his first two TDs of the season Sunday while Saints tight end and scoring machine Jimmy Graham got blanked.

NEW ORLEANS - If you're an Andy Dalton basher, you probably won't want to read this because Sunday is why Dalton and A.J. Green have an era named after them.

With the 27-10 cold-blooded hacking of the Saints' high-tech offense, the Dr. Jekyll Bengals are making sure no one runs away and Hydes in the AFC North race.

As a matter of fact, Dalton, left for pundits' road kill when we last saw him with a 2.0 passer rating against Cleveland 10 days ago, led the Bengals back into first place in the AFC North with a career-best passer rating of 143.9 in which Green noted he dropped three "dimes,' to him in the killing fourth quarter drive. The new math is three dimes equal 80 yards.

For those who have been waiting for Green to grab a game by the throat and will the Bengals to a win with sheer talent, Dalton did what all good straight men do and quietly set him up.

"He's Andy. Same thing I've said all along," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "He'll bounce back and he'll play well. We didn't help him (not) to play well last week. We all had a part in it. We have to play better and this week we all did and he played better. We honestly believe in him. That's the truth. He's our quarterback and he's our leader and there's no one in this locker room that questions that. We have to do things to help him do his job. We have to be able run the ball well. We have to be physical with teams and give him an opportunity to do what he does best."

What he does best is confound the experts. Ten days after playing the worst game of his NFL career, he arguably played the best game when his team needed it the most. At the start of a three-game road trip, his cool froze the Saints' red-hot home field advantage that had claimed 11 straight before the loss to San Francisco last week. He had his first three-touchdown game of the season, his third 70-plus completion percentage game of the year (72), and his first no-interception game dating back to Oct. 19 in Indianapolis.

It bested his 136.2 rating he used to shred the Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium last December, 42-14.

"You lose and everyone wants to run you out," Dalton said. "You win everyone is going to like you. I'm not too worried about it. It was a big win for us. So it's good to bounce back and get a big one on the road."

We knew Dalton was in the fire, but we didn't know Green was in the frying pan. He put himself in there last week when offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and wide receivers coach James Urban challenged him to be better than the last two games after a rather pedestrian six catches for 67 yards. They were his first two games back since his big toe injury wiped out the three previous games.

"I'm just trying to get back into the rhythm. These couple of weeks I wasn't feeling like myself," Green said. "Not because I was injured. It was trying to just get back in the flow of things I missed those couple of weeks. This was my first full of week practice taking every rep."

Green took his shot at all the Saints corners all over the field on that last drive and left them gasping. On third-and-18, he swooped past double coverage and beat cornerback Corey White and safety Rafael Bush down the right sideline when Dalton lofted it to him in stride.  On third-and-and-two he knifed inside cornerback Brian Dixon from the right over the middle and Dalton led him just enough for 18 yards. Then on the next snap he raced down the left sideline and beat their best corner, Keenan Lewis, for the 24-yard touchdown pass Dalton tucked over his shoulder with 11:29 left.

After watching that clinic, Whitworth knew how much it was needed for an offense that came into the game 29th in the league in third-down efficiency and had been unable to get defenses to loosen up and worry about the run as well as the pass. They ripped off nine of 13 third-down tries and Green's catch was the first TD pass of at least 20 yards since Oct. 12.

A playmaker.

 "That's what we need," Whitworth said. "To be honest, we can fight and do these things to be good, but the reason he's A.J. is the ability he has. Honestly, that's what we need. When he does things like that, it makes us a team that's hard to beat."

It will be recalled that Jackson is the coach that 10 years ago set wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh straight in helping produce three of the best seasons ever of Bengals offense. Green's nice guy personality is far from that difficult, but he can borrow a little bit of their saltiness from time to time and Jackson found the button.

Not only did Jackson challenge him "to be the old A.J.," and dominate corners and be mentioned with the greats of the game, the prideful Green and his mates were left to stew in the juices of a Thursday night rout to Cleveland where Dalton grabbed the headlines but where Green again got bested by nemesis Browns cornerback Joe Haden and it didn't sit well.

"That was the worst part after the Thursday night game was watching the Sunday games and the Monday game and the Thursday night game and finally we got a chance," Green said. "We really had to stew in that mess all week and that helped us with last week's practice. I felt we had some of the best practices we had in a long time and it showed today. I didn't play well last week. I challenged myself this whole week to get better.

"You can't put the blame on the quarterback. The receivers have to run better routes," Green said. "I didn't do a great job, but I just challenged myself this week to be able to come back here and help my team win."

If that isn't leadership, this was:

With running back Jeremy Hill pounding the Saints into an eight-man front as the third quarter turned into the fourth quarter, Green let Dalton know.

"Andy and I communicate coming off the field and he was asking me what I saw," Green said. "I told him it was Cover One (man-to-man) and next time who's ever there just give me a chance and see what I can do."

Talk about the Bengals overcoming adversity. All of Bengaldom had a bad feeling when on the first play after the Saints cut the lead to 20-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter, Green was called  for his first offensive pass interference penalty of the season. A good call, he said.

"I was just trying to be physical. I have to keep my hand down," he said.

That produced a third-and-18 from the Bengals 12 and it sounded like the Superdome roof was going to blow off in a cascade of noise. But it got quiet in a hurry when Green suddenly went for 80 on three dimes. On the last one his toe drag had to survive replay.

"I knew I got my back foot down, so I had no worries," he said. "But next time I'll just toe tap to make sure."

On Sunday, the Green-Dalton Bengals didn't dance around the improvements they needed to make.

  "We just put our head down. This team is a family," Green said. "We have each other's back. We play for each other."

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