Bengals can leap into playoffs with win in finale


Jermaine Gresham

The candidates for what invisible entity tackled Cardinals wide receiver Early Doucet in the end zone Christmas Eve with 1:12 left to prevent a certain tying fourth-down touchdown catch at Paul Brown Stadium ranged from Paul Brown to the late Chris Henry. Defensive tackle Domata Peko ventured Santa or Jesus.

"The Grace of God. The grace of God," decided Bengals outside linebacker Thomas Howard after he saw a 23-0 fourth-quarter lead nearly descend into overtime chaos.

Now these who-would-have-thought-it 9-6 Bengals are hosting that improbable season finale next Sunday that has been flexed to 4:15 p.m. when they play the Ravens for the right to go to the playoffs after Saturday's 23-16 stocking-stuffer.

The Ravens have to win to make sure they win the AFC North and a playoff bye. And if the Chargers lose Saturday night, the Bengals have to win because they lose virtually every tiebreaker by virtue of conference record.

The only way a Bengals loss gets them in is if they have two-way tiebreaker with Tennessee.

After 41,273 fans watched the Bengals reach next Sunday's play-in game, the Bengals made a plea led by head coach Marvin Lewis.

"The crowd really affected the game with the noise and I'm sure they'll be anxious to get here next Sunday as we play for something special," Lewis said. "We started this quite a while ago. Seems like yesterday, but now we're right where we want to be at the end."

It's a finale the pundits never imagined for a franchise wracked by its most turbulent offseason ever that was punctuated by a trade demand from its franchise quarterback and a draft that made over its team with Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green and TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the first two rounds.

Throw in a new offensive coordinator and the four-month NFL lockout that wiped all contact with players, and more people predicted the Bengals for the NFL's worst record than a last-week playoff contender.

"It's something this team believed we had a chance to do, but we weren't getting much credit from the outside," Dalton said after his two touchdown passes made him the first rookie since the 1970 merger to throw 20 touchdown passes and quarterback at least eight wins. "Inside this locker room, the coaches and everybody here knew we had a chance, we just had to put it all together. We'll find out next week."

On a day middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Nate Clements celebrated the births of their daughters on Thursday, their teammates on Saturday celebrated the youngest team in the AFC getting one last shot to make the postseason.

Cornerback Adam Jones, one of the improbable Bengals who was in a neck brace in July and is now bracing for an all-or-nothing game, made a plea to the television cameras.

"I'm just happy for the team and the city of Cincinnati," Jones said. "The fans did a great job getting behind us and we need all of you this week. We need the fans this week. Who Dey! Please come support us."

Then at the urging of The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy, he added, "I'm Adam Jones and I approved this message."

Jones thought back to June when there were "no organized OTAs and it was just a of bunch of guys that wanted to get together and win. It feels good to know all that work is paying off."

Back in June, Green wasn't even signed and had yet to get any NFL coaching. And he heard the naysayers, too.

"Nobody would have believed us," Green said. "Coming into training camp I saw something in this team they were willing to outwork everybody. Do what it takes to win a game and that's what we've done this season."

In the end, the defense bailed the Bengals out again as left tackle Andrew Whitworth observed, "They did what great defenses do" in coming up with a season-high five sacks for a fourth time and three interceptions for the first time since they had four against the Ravens on Sept. 19, 2010.

Jones nodded at Lewis getting a bottle of water after one of the biggest wins of his career and said, "That guy Marvin, he's done a great job keeping us on the same page and making sure we have no doubts. I'm ready for Baltimore," and then he nodded at Clements.

"We work hard during the week and we're talking out there," Jones said. "It helps to have 22. This guy here, he's just so damn smart. People don't realize it, but a lot of plays, he has helped me out to pick up my game as far as studying (goes) — what's coming and what route."

With the Bengals needing the Jets to lose, Lewis suggested that the team not post the score of the Jets-Giants game in the stadium and it wasn't. Until the second half, when both the Bengals and Giants were in control.

"We weren't concerned about that," Whitworth said. "We knew we had to win this one to get a shot at Baltimore."

With players scrambling to get home for Christmas Eve and the Ravens flapping in the distance, there was a sense there were important things out there. Next Sunday marks just the second time in Clements's 11 seasons he goes into a season finale with a shot to go to the playoffs. He lost that one in Buffalo.

"All we needed to do was win the game and we didn't," he said. "That's water under the bridge. This week is all that matters."

That and his baby born Thursday, his fourth, a daughter, Phoenix Marie. She'll share a birthday with the daughter of Maualuga, Abayah. Dad wasted no time honoring her with his first interception of the season two minutes into the game that set the defensive tone. Clements got one, too, later in the first half.

"Everything I was doing was for her," said Maualuga, making a cradling motion. "When I got the ball, I treated it like it was her."

But the Bengals didn't treat Cardinals five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald with kid gloves. Jones ripped a long gain out of his hands before he hit the ground in the first half and safety Chris Crocker made a huge play on third-and-11 with 3:25 left and the Bengals leading, 23-13, when he batted the ball away from Fitzgerald at the goal line to force a field goal.

Fitzgerald did get wide open for a 39-yard bomb and 30-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the furious second-half rally and he did finish with six catches for 105 yards.

But Fitzgerald didn't get loose on those four shots from the Bengals 22 starting with 3:04 left following running back Cedric Benson's second fourth-quarter fumble. On third down, Clements led a charge that hemmed in Fitzgerald for a two-yard gain to set up the fourth-and-five from the Bengals 17 and Doucet's fall from/with grace.

"I kind of hooked my feet up; it's a play I should've made," Doucet said. "You can't fall down no matter what. No excuse will justify the fact that I fell. It was a play we needed to win the game. That's a play I'll make nine times out of 10. It would have put us in a better position to win. I have to move on and stay positive. My teammates believe in me and I'll continue to believe in myself. I'm going to go home and spend Christmas with the family and get ready to play Seattle."

Clements shrugged. It was an all-out blitz and no one was there.

"Next play," he said. "You move on."

After his defense stopped the Cards twice in the last 1:12, Lewis said the Bengals learned from the Houston game that they lost two weeks ago on a two-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.

"You mean that sickening feeling," Clements said. "We didn't want that sour taste in our mouth again.

"We knew that Fitz was going to get targeted a lot throughout the game. He's their No. 1 receiver and we just wanted to be disruptive and make him fight for the ball. Just challenging him every time he got the ball. With the exception of his touchdown, we made it tough for him."

The Bengals again made it tough on their loyalists, but like Green said, "It's been crazy the whole year. It always comes down to the wire. Somehow we always find a way to make it interesting."

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