Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson's perfect 10 somersault at the goal line capped a near perfect first half that translated into a crazy 23-16 victory over the Cardinals on Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium before 41,237.
With the crowd looking for the Giants to vault the Jets, the Bengals barely held on in their effort to turn next Sunday's season finale against the Ravens into a win-and-go playoff scenario.
The Bengals, 9-6, guaranteed a winning season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. They cooled off the red-hot Cards by snapping their four-game losing streak with five sacks while coming up with three interceptions for Cincinnati's first multi-interception game of the season.
But the Bengals nearly blew that 23-0 lead. After running back Cedric Benson's second fumble in the fourth quarter (and fifth in the last two games) gave the Cardinals the ball back on the Bengals 22 with 3:04 left in the game, chaos was near.
And on fourth down from the 17, Cardinals quarterback John Skelton had wide receiver Early Doucet wide open for the tying touchdown with 1:12 left. But Doucet inexplicably fell down and the ball sailed harmlessly over his head.
Of course, it is never easy. After Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald beat the blitz with a 30-yard catch and-run touchdown to make it 23-7, Benson fumbled for the fourth time in two weeks that gave the ball right back to the Cards at the Bengals 39 with 9:19 left in the game. It took no time for Skelton to hit tight end Jeff King for a two-yard touchdown that cut it to 23-13 with 7:39 left.
The Bengals then broke up the two-point conversion when defensive lineman Jon Fanene reached his hand in on Skelton in the pocket to add to his two sacks.
Submerged in an 0-for-5 second-half funk on third down, the Bengals offense gave the ball right back and they needed help to hold the Cards to a Jay Feely field goal that made it 23-16 with 3:16 left.
Somehow the Bengals defense left Fitzgerald wide open for a 39-yard catch that put the ball on the goal line, but on the next snap the quarterback-center exchange was fumbled and Bengals safety Taylor Mays just barely missed getting the ball that running back Beanie Wells did back at the Bengals 11. Safety Chris Crocker then made a good play on Fitzgerald on third down to force the field goal.
Trailing 20-0 at the half, the Cardinals went from red hot to just hot when three major penalties turned into Mike Nugent's third field goal that made it 23-0 with 3:09 left in the third quarter.
The Bengals defense carried the first half with three sacks and interceptions by middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Nate Clements while not allowing Arizona to cross the 50-yard line. Skelton completed just five of 13 passes for 63 yards in the half and Wells had just 17 on six carres as Arizona went into the half with just 56 yards. A tale of three quarters and a half. Wells finished with just 53 yards on 14 carries, but Skelton came out 23-of-44 for 297 yards, the second most yards against the Bengals this season next to the 323 of Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson.
The wide-open Simpson took a short pass from quarterback Andy Dalton over the middle on a second-and-eight from the Cards 19 and he found himself running to the pylon and Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington. Simpson planted his feet at about the 1, somersaulted over Walker into the end zone, and stuck the landing like on some wayward ABC's Wide World of Sports video.
That gave the Bengals a 17-0 lead with 2:10 left and the way the defense was playing, it turned out to be plenty of time to get more.
With Fitzgerald, the Cardinals five-time Pro Bowl receiver, looking for interference with Clements and Crocker in coverage in a frustrating half the Bengals held him to one catch for 13 yards, the Cards went three-and-out and the Bengals got the ball at their 41 with one timeout left.
The Bengals chose to not to take a timeout or spike it, and Dalton took a sack from end Calais Campbell inside the red zone, forcing the Bengals to call a timeout with four seconds left to kick Nugent's 41-yard field goal to make it 20-0.
Simpson's flip made Dalton the first rookie since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to have 20 touchdowns while winning eight games. He finished the half with a 115 passer rating on 15-of-22 for 136 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He only threw for 18 yards in the second half and finished 18 of 31 for a 92,7 rating.
Clements set up Simpson's touchdown when left end Carlos Dunlap chased Skelton out of the pocket and Skelton threw it right to him at the Bengals 42.
The Bengals jumped on the Cardinals in the first 10 minutes for a 10-0 lead and then added their third sack of the day with 3:44 left in the first quarter when Fanene joined Dunlap and fellow defensive lineman Domata Peko.
But the Bengals missed the chance to jack it to 13-0 on the next two series when Nugent missed back-to-back field-goal tries from 35 and 48 yards. Nugent, who came into the game with just two misses and was the NFL leader in field-goal percentage, pushed both of them right.
Cincinnati didn't want to let the Cardinals and Skelton hang around. He's the first quarterback in history to lead winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime in six of his first 11 games.
Moments after rookie wide receiver A.J. Green lured Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson into a 21-yard pass interference penalty on a go route down the left sideline, Dalton fired a third-and-four touchdown pass for 11 yards to tight end Jermaine Gresham for his 19th of the season and 10th on third down.
Dalton scrambled to his left, stopped and hit Gresham on a line in the left corner and Gresham made an acrobatic snatch away from lWashington to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead with 6:24 left in the first quarter.
Later in the game, Green made an outstanding backward leaning catch for a 21-yard play between free safety Kerry Rhodes and cornerback A.J. Jefferson and the play gave him the club's rookie receiving yardage record when he passed Cris Collinsworth's mark of 1,000. He finished with two catches for 25 yards, his fewest since he left the Nov. 13 Pittsburgh game late in the first quarter with a hyperextended knee.
The Bengals couldn't cash the game's first turnover on the game's first series, created by pressure on Skelton. One snap after Peko came up the middle for a big 11-yard sack, Skelton overthrew a ball into the middle for wide receiver Andre Roberts and Maualuga held on for his first interception of the season to put the Bengals on the Arizona 23 in the game's first 2:06.
The Cards aren't exactly handing out touchdowns and came into the game allowing just eight of them in the last 89 drives. The 90th drive was no different. Dalton did find Gresham for an 11-yard gain on first down but the Bengals couldn't get a touchdown on three shots from the 11. After two runs for four yards by Benson, Green lined up offsides on what turned out to be an incompletion to him at the goal line and Nugent came on for a 24-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead four minutes into the game.
Benson did get his third straight 1,000-yard season when he finished with 57 yards on 16 carries.
PREGAME NOTES: Third-down back Brian Leonard missed his third straight game as the Bengals took the field Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium to play the Cardinals even though he had been listed as probable after he practiced full Friday.
Leonard (knee) and wide receiver Andre Caldwell (groin-abdomen) were the only Bengals not in the lineup because of injury as the Bengals try to get their offense untracked. They haven't scored more than two touchdowns in a game since Nov. 20 in Baltimore.
Caldwell scored a 49-yard touchdown in that game, but quarterback Andy Dalton hasn't received much from his guys other than A.J. Green. Rookies Andrew Hawkins and Ryan Whalen get another turn in the slot against the Cardinals.
Also inactive for the Bengals were safety Robert Sands, linebacker Dontay Moch, guard Otis Hudson, tight end Colin Cochart, and defensive tackle Nick Hayden. The Bengals are going with two tight ends and seven down linemen Saturday against an Arizona team that has won games like the Bengals with defense and special teams.
Both teams have also lived in the fourth quarter, where the Cards have won six of their games and the Bengals five.
As expected, John Skelton got the start at quarterback for the Cardinals and the second-year man looks to extend his run to 6-1 in place of Kevin Kolb. Skelton, a fifth-rounder out of Fordham in 2010, made his 10th NFL start. With Bengals rookie Andy Dalton making his 15th, it marked the third straight game Dalton faced a quarterback with fewer starts.
There was one guy that had more starts than anyone on the field during pregame in Bengals all-time leading passer Ken Anderson. Anderson, 62, in town for the holidays, visited with old road roommate, Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, as well as Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a former teammate and coaching colleague in Cincinnati.
"I think he's doing well," Anderson said of Dalton. "He's working through some rookie things, but I really like his poise and how quickly he throws the ball away when there's nothing there."
Also on the field visiting was Cardinals secondary coach Louie Cioffi, who coached in the Bengals secondary the previous 14 seasons. After watching tape of Green all week, Cioffi has been raving about him and at one point this week compared him favorably to two of the best receivers he saw here since 1997.
"Catches the deep ball like Carl Pickens, runs like Chad (Ochocinco)," he says.
The Bengals showed up in the orange jerseys and white pants and turned to five game captains they think will have a big say in the game: Safety Jeromy Miles for special teams, center Kyle Cook, left end Robert Geathers, running back Cedric Benson, and cornerback Nate Clements.
The Bengals won the toss and, as usual, deferred to give the ball to the Cardinals.