Wallace Gilberry glides into the end zone on his 25-yard fumble return
PHILADELPHIA — After his NFL Network televised Thursday night's less-than-artistic 34-13 Bengals victory over the Eagles, Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders came into the Cincinnati locker room looking for wide receiver A.J. Green.
"Hey Superman," Sanders said.
But the offense of Green and quarterback Andy Dalton looked all too human and needed a Herculean effort by the defense to generate a season-high five turnovers—four in a stunning span of 6:25 linking the third and fourth quarters—to erase a 13-10 deficit with 24 points in 3:23.
It was a lesson in playoff football. With a good defense—a solid top 10 defense that may rise from its No. 6 ranking in the NFL—a team can survive almost anything. Even a season-high 11 penalties, six sacks, two sacks-and-strips inside the Bengals 29, and quarterback Andy Dalton completing just 48 percent of his passes.
And even surviving prime-time, where the Bengals hadn't won in five years and nine games.
While the Bengals jacked their record to 8-6 (the seventh time in his 10 seasons head coach Marvin Lewis has won at least eight games), the Eagles kept imploding to 4-10.
"It was bad. I don't think I've ever seen that happen on the other side or have it happen to my team; it was bad," said safety Chris Crocker, who hopped on one of the miscues at the Eagles 13 after safety Reggie Nelson dislodged a completed pass. "Sometimes it's just dumb luck.
"That was pretty bad. The first half we were killing ourselves. It seemed like we were doing everything possible to kill ourselves. Then we got all those turnovers in five minutes."
The defense let Green and quarterback Andy Dalton connect for a touchdown for the first time since Nov. 18, a five-yard fade with 12:47 left that closed the scoring, but the Bengals know it all means nothing unless they beat the AFC North elite in the last two games now that the Bengals have nosed ahead of the Steelers by a half-game for the final wild card spot.
After a three-day weekend, the Bengals report back to work Monday to begin preparation for the biggest game of the Green-Dalton era, the Dec. 23 game in Pittsburgh against the 7-6 Steelers followed by the Dec. 30 finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the North-leading Ravens.
Dalton and Green have set a record for most yards by quarterback-receiver duo in their first two seasons, but they are 0-6 vs. the Steelers and Ravens.
"We need to win," Green said, and Dalton fumed after throwing for his fewest yards ever in a win (127): "There's two big games left."
Dalton was the steward of an offense that looked it had never seen a football. Green was the only wide receiver to catch a pass. Their brick-hitting fullback Chris Pressley looked lost for the season with a knee injury in the first quarter. Dalton's fumbles off two sacks put the ball on the Bengals 29 and 12 in the second quarter.
But the defense offered a foreshadowing of the second half when it stoned the Eagles at the 3- and 1-yard lines to force field goals with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga being very active in pass coverage in the end zone.
"It's mano a mano in the red zone," said Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry, one of the night's heroes. "Our thing is we may bend but we're not going to break."
Gilberry helped break it open two snaps after Dalton's 11-yard scramble gave the Bengals a 17-13 lead with 1:10 left in the third quarter. As Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown fumbled a handoff, defensive tackle Pat Sims knocked it away and Gilberry picked it up and ran it 25 yards for Cincinnati's first defensive touchdown of the season and the first of his five-year NFL career with 21 seconds left in the third that made it 24-13.
But Gilberry and everyone else in the Bengals locker room will say the game turned on cornerback Leon Hall's interception of rookie quarterback Nick Foles's underthrown bomb and ensuing 44-yard return with 5:58 left in the third quarter and the Bengals trailing, 13-10.
In fact, Gilberry told Hall before the play that he was going to get an interception, his first since the day he tore his Achilles on Nov. 13, 2011 against the Steelers.
"I don't know what came over me," Gilberry said. "It was boosting morale. He's a big-play guy. I knew he was capable of doing something like that."
Defensive tackle Domata Peko looked over at the locker of the man who signed off the street in late September and called Gilberry "The New Fanene" in honor of former Bengals defensive end Jon Fanene. "He gets sacks and, yeah, Fanene got a touchdown (in 2009), too."
"We kept our composure on defense," Peko said. "We were asking each other who was going to make the big play. Then Leon started it and Gilberry took it to the crib. That's the good part about being a team. Everyone did their part and the nice thing is we seem to be able to win games in the fourth quarter. We kept chopping wood and didn't get down."
Green, who finished with six catches for 57 yards that included a huge leaping catch on third-and-nine that made the go-ahead touchdown drive possible, also talked about composure.
"Sometimes it's going to be like this this," Green said. "That's the thing about this team, we're not going to flinch. We're going to keep our cool. The defense played lights out, we fed off them today."
The offensive line seems perplexed by what it called three- and two-man games by the Eagles defensive front. Right tackle Andre Smith said the Eagles were pinching the Bengals tackles inside and slanting and looping linebackers and ends all the way around the edge.
"No excuses," Smith said. "We have to learn from it and never let it happen again."
What we are learning about Dalton is that he can find ways to win when he's not at his best and he hasn't been for three weeks, but he has willed two road wins in that stretch raising his road record to 10-5. Dalton's passion was still bubbling a half-hour after it was over. He had thrown that third-down ball where only Green could catch it, but he seethed about the pass before when "I threw that screen pass into the ground."
Dalton's will took over on his 11-yard touchdown scramble as he began to take advantage of the Eagles playing man-to-man underneath with the gambling stunts and began to run out of the pocket.
"We did not play well," Dalton said. "You take it upon yourself. We weren't throwing the ball, we weren't protecting. We've got to play better than that. That's what we were talking about. We played really bad and scored 34 points. It's still a team game, that's what it comes down to."
Crocker has lost plenty of games where his team played a lot better, got no breaks and lost. He'll take Thursday night.
"Sometimes it's just dumb luck," Crocker said. "Sometimes it's not going to be pretty, it wasn't a pretty win. It was just one of those we squeezed it out. Lady Luck sometimes."
He likes the karma of getting a victory like this one with the two biggest games of the year left.
"I like our chances," Crocker said. "Let it all go. We'll have a couple of days off, get our bodies right, and let it all go."