The running game got Andy Dalton going.
With a Wild Card rematch against the Steelers calling for Saturday night (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals flexed their muscles in the running game just in time as they put the Ravens out of their 5-11 misery in Sunday's 24-16 victory at PBS.
Riding their longest run of the year, their biggest rushing game in two months, and their most rushing yards against the Ravens since 2009, the Bengals offense pronounced itself play-off ready.
"That's what we feel like we can do," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth after the 145-yard effort. "We've got to have that to win play-off football. Especially if Andy can't go. The running game is going to be the key. If we want to be successful, we're going to have to be able to run the ball."
Quarterback Andy Dalton may be optimistic he can play against Pittsburgh, but no one is going to know anything until after his Monday afternoon doctor's appointment to check on his broken throwing thumb. And even if the cast comes off, when can he throw and how well? Certainly head coach Marvin Lewis won't offer the results to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in a conference call.
The Bengals P.R. handouts are even playing along. The players are off Monday and back to work Tuesday, when "a quarterback news conference,' is set.
Conventional wisdom is backup quarterback AJ McCarron is going to be charged by head coach Marvin Lewis to do what Dalton and Carson Palmer didn't do and win a post-season game.
And don't look now, but after throwing two TD passes Sunday with a brisk 109.3 passer rating, McCarron hasn't thrown an interception in his three starts and he's rung up four TD passes and completed 65 percent while the Bengals have quietly built a portfolio to win in the playoffs.
For years in the Wild Card Games they've watched other teams run the ball on them while taking care of the ball.
But now the Bengals have looked like they hijacked the playoff formula from Rex Ryan and Gary Kubiak and Mike McCoy and all those other coaches that have run them out of the postseason. Dalton and McCarron combined to throw 31 TD passes with just nine interceptions this season and running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard and their offensive line look to be kicking it into gear.
"Like I said from the beginning, if the other quarterback turns the ball over and you don't, it puts your team in a situation to win the ballgame," McCarron said. "That's the biggest thing for us, taking care of the football. Everything wasn't perfect today, but that's the way it's going to be sometimes. But we did take care of the football and I'm proud of the guys for that."
Except for another perfect 10 Olympic balance beam job on the sidelines by wide receiver A.J. Green, it was Hill who took care of the ball Sunday. On 16 carries he rolled up 96 yards against a Ravens defense seventh in the NFL allowing 3.9 yards per rush. Say what you will about the Ravens, but the Bengals' 145 yards were the third most against Baltimore this season and the most the Ravens have allowed since Arizona put up 150 on them back on Oct. 26.
"We had that mindset," said Bernard, who went for six yards per pop on his six carries. "That's what matters in a divisional game like that. Late in the season, early in the season, it doesn't matter. Just running and sticking to it."
The pound-it mentality, drummed into them by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, was summed up on Hill's fourth-and-one run that broke up the game with 6:55 left in the third quarter. His 38-yard touchdown run, the longest run for the Bengals season, featured backup rookie tackle Jake Fisher taking his first snaps as a fullback/ tight end. With H-Back Ryan Hewitt (knee) sidelined, Jackson sent the physical message to his team when he handed him jersey No. 44.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.
"I was kind of learning the position as the game went along," said Fisher, who didn't take any snaps at his new spot until Thursday's practice. "You don't get a lot of game-speed reps in practice. The biggest change is probably going downhill blocking instead of coming off the line for contact."
So was there any doubt what would happen on fourth-and-one? On third-and-one, McCarron went play-action bootleg and when Green wasn't open deep he calmly tossed it away.
Fourth-and-one. Jackson went with his signature six-man line with first-round rookie tackle Cedric Ogbuehi on the right edge as a tight end. Fisher, the 306-pound second-round pick, lined up in front of Hill and Fisher picked off inside linebacker Daryl Smith to the left of center. Hill cut under and bolted to the right. Coming the other way to shield Hill from the safety was Ogbuehi. No one touched Hill running to the right pylon. TD, 21-9, Bengals, midway through the third quarter.
It's weird for defenders," Hill said. "You have a 300-pound man running at you full speed. You have to have contain. Gap integrity. That can be a little tricky. I don't know if they got that look in practice this week. I'm pretty sure they didn't."
Hill certainly didn't get a look at his TD dance celebrating his 11th this season. (And, by the way, wide receiver A.J. Green's 10th TD and tight end Tyler Eifert's 13th TD on Sunday make them the first trio in club history to have at least 10 TDs.)
The inspiration came from Disco Fever and hip-hop, which means the good times are rolling again for Hill, frustrated by this year's 3.6 yards per carry and sub-1,000-yard season after last year's break-out rookie season.
"It was nice to be able to make a big play when we needed it," Hill said. "We got a little stagnant . . . It's fourth-and-one, so you've got to make sure you get that yard. Once I got to the second level, the safety was so far back it was just a race to the pylon."
If Hill broke new ground on his long run, Green and Eifert scored on familiar looks. For the second week in a row, McCarron hooked up on a five-yard-tap-the-feet fade from the balletic Green in the right back corner.
"I mess with him. For him to do so well with the sidelines, he is a terrible dancer," McCarron said with a laugh. "You would think being able to toe tap and everything, he would be better. He is just an excellent player. My job is to put it where the DB isn't and he goes up and makes plays like that. I think we have a good feel for each other and its working."
And then Eifert scored on what he always seems to score on. Inside the cornerback (Jimmy Smith) and behind the safety (Will Hill). A 22-yard touchdown down the seam. Except this was Eifert's first game with McCarron.
"This was a little different," Eifert said. "We finally got the look we wanted. I got behind the strong safety and got in the hole and AJ put it in a good spot."
It makes you wonder what McCarron might have done if Eifert hadn't left the Pittsburgh game with a concussion, or if he had played last Monday night in Denver. Three TDs and the Bengals are off this week.
"He knows where to be and I have a good feel for where he is going to be. I think it showed on the touchdown pass," said McCarron, who knew he wouldn't need much time with Eifert. "I knew he was going to end up being there, and the defender was looking at me, so I let it go, and he did an excellent job of making the catch for the TD. There are certain guys that you know the feel they are going to have for the game and how they play the game, and he is just one of those guys."
McCarron looked pretty cool for a guy who is probably making his first play-off start in five days.
"Like I've said from the beginning when I was able to take this thing over, college is college and the NFL is the NFL," McCarron said. "I think having experience playing in big games in bigger stadiums and it's a lot louder and the stakes at Alabama are pretty wild, I think it helps. But its two different leagues and I just preparing for the moment I am living in right now."
But running the ball wins in any league.
"We felt that was a bright spot in Denver last week," Whitworth said, "We could do what we wanted to do. Three, four, five yards a pop. We keep pounding away and we got some penalties in the second half there and that kept us out of situations."
But not here Sunday, Most of the penalties came in the first half and they were crippling, holding them to a 9-7 half-time deficit.
"Loved them," Whitworth said of the run numbers. "And we felt like they could have been even better. We felt like that's what Pittsburgh missed the week before. Pittsburgh rushed for almost six yards per carry. We felt like we had to run the ball."
Must be the playoffs.