Kevin Kaesviharn records one of Cincinnati's seven sacks. (Getty Images)The NFL world is topsy-turvy Monday morning. In the AFC, the high-octane Bengals have a three-game lead on the Jets and Bills. A two-game lead on the Patriots. A two-and-a-half game lead on the Ravens with a 4-0 record that has pushed 80 percent of teams with such a start into the playoffs since 1990.
And they're doing it with defense. After vaulting to the top of the NFL with 16 turnovers in the first three games, the Bengals got the only one of the game when it mattered most Sunday. With 3:14 left and the Bengals holding on to a 13-10 lead, left end Justin Smith roared underneath Houston tackle Todd Wade on his outside and picked up a sack that turned into a controversial fumble call. The Texans challenged, insisting quarterback David Carr was throwing as Smith hit his arm, but the replay wasn't as conclusive as Smith and the Bengals. Tackle John Thornton fell on the ball at the Texans 35 and it was all she wrote.
Or he wrote.
"The script doesn't matter," said head coach Marvin Lewis.
No Bengals team has allowed fewer than 38 points in the first four games of a season. Go back to Game 15 against the Giants last year and they haven't allowed more than one touchdown in their last six games. All wins. A stretch where the big calls always seem to go their way.
"I thought I hit the ball," Smith said. "It was a good call."
Turning up the heat
The pass rush had been ripped for getting just two sacks in the first three games, but like it has all year, the defense had an answer. The Bengals got sacks from seven different players in exploiting Houston's massive pass-protection problems even though the Texans, at times, employed maximum protection and sent out only two receivers. The game fittingly ended with Carr trying to launch a Hail Mary and linebacker Brian Simmons clipping him at the ankles for a sack at the Texans 35. It's the 20th sack Houston has allowed in three games.
"I think we felt like we had a chance to be a pretty good defense," Smith said, "and the only people that gave us a chance were the players and the coaches."
Smith delivered the big blow, but many thought the turning point in the 10-10 game came early in the fourth quarter when Georgia linebackers Odell Thurman and David Pollack registered their first NFL sacks on back-to-back snaps that drove Houston out of at least a potential field goal. It was a symbolic 30 seconds at the very least since Pollack and Thurman are the club's top two draft picks.
"It couldn't have happened any other way," Thurman said after he went on a blitz through left guard and dropped Carr for an 11-yard loss back to the Texans 47. "That was perfect. I used my speed on that one. I don't think the (the guard) was able to get back in time."
That set up a third-and-19 for Pollack and Texans left tackle Victor Riley must have known what was coming because he false started as Pollack lined up at his usual spot in passing downs at right end, and the crowd helped.
"There's always a 12th man when we play here," Thurman said.
Then Pollack showed his relentless determination, spinning and twisting two and three times around Riley to dump Carr for a massive 17-yard loss with 12:49 left in the game.
"Those two plays were the biggest plays of the game," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "The defense made a play and won the game for us. If Odell and Pollack don't make those plays, who knows what happens? It gave us great field position and knocked them out of field-goal range."
When the offense is talking like that, you know they must be doing something right as a unit.
"Thank Jesus. You don't think that's a load off the back, do you?" Pollack asked. "I couldn't stand having a zero in the sack column. I feel so much better."
Later, Riley threw Pollack to the ground to prevent another sack, but there was no holding call.
"It's not a matter of who you're going against, but staying after it, staying low and getting there," Pollack said. "(The hold) stuff like that is going to happen. You have to keep playing."
Thornton wasn't going wild over the sacks. He knows the last time the Bengals had seven sacks was back on Nov. 21, 2004 in a 19-14 loss to the Steelers.
"See, we almost lost today," Thornton said. "You win on defense stopping people on first down and third down. They did a good job early in the game throwing on first down and running bootlegs to keep us off-balance. Then we figured out what they were going to do, and we definitely picked up the intensity in the fourth quarter. It was a different defense."
That may have been the most impressive thing. The defensive playmakers saw what time it was and came calling.
"I think coverage had a lot to do with it," Smith said. "(Carr) held the ball. You've got to figure that the DBs are on film picking balls off like crazy, and he was worried about throwing it up there. I think in the last couple of games, guys just threw it up there, and this time he held on it and we could get to him."
The defense also stitched together a win without the guy that may be its best player, free safety Madieu Williams, injured in Friday's practice and inactive with a shoulder problem. Strong safety Kevin Kaesviharn moved to free and got one of the sacks with a blitz off the corner that caught Carr napping. Special teams workhorse Ifeanyi Ohalete came off the bench to play strong in both running and passing situations as well as continuing to work on special teams.