Andy Dalton heated up in the second half.
A decimated Bengals defense pitched a courageous second half in Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium season finale and the overhauled offensive line delivered a 26-17 victory that knocked the Lions out of the postseason.
Running back Giovani Bernard, enjoying his first 100-yard day since Sept. 20, 2015, got the final 12 of his 116 yards on a touchdown run he veeered around the right edge with 1:54 left to account for the final score. Two of the guys he followed were the young guards who played so well in Alex Redmond and Christian Westerman as the Bengals ran a power play out of a goal-line set.
In the Lions' last drive the Bengals survived an injury to cornerback William Jackson and got back-to-back sacks from Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson to end it.
If it was indeed head coach Marvin Lewis' final home game, the hazy foggy and snowy mist matched the future as cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Josh Shaw combined to wrench a completion away from Lions wide receiver Golden Tate that would have converted a third-and-28 with a little less than four minutes left.
In a sense it was classic MarvBall. All-out, blue-collar grime ball no matter the elements or record. After three straight devastating losses and media bannering his season-end exit, Lewis raised his record to 3-0 in home finales in which his non-play-off team played spoiler. The 2017 Bengals did to the Lions what they did 10 years ago to the Browns and in 2010 to the Chargers as Lewis lifted his record to 11-4 in PBS finales.
The Bengals survived a slew of negative plays to set up Randy Bullock's 51-yard field goal with 4:42 left for a 19-17 lead. It was his first 50-yarder since 2014, fourth field goal of the game, and avenged last year's Christmas Eve miss on the last play in Houston. On the previous play quarterback Andy Dalton did give the end zone a shot when he ran A.J. Green on a go route down the left side and it fell incomplete as he and cornerback Darius Slay jostled each other in the end zone.
Lions right guard Don Barclay jumped with 11:28 left on fourth-and-one, but Bengals rookie defensive lineman Jordan Willis suffered an even bigger penalty when he ran into punter Sam Martin on the next play to set up fourth-and-one again. This time University of Cincinnati rookie big back Tion Green bulled for the first down for 12 yards and tight end Eric Ebron continued his all-day torture when he beat linebacker Vincent Rey for 29 yards. When Martin walked in from five yards out the Lions had a 17-16 lead with 9:49 left.
The Bengals' revamped offensive line responded enough to give the Bengals 16-10 lead on Bullock's 35-yard field goal with 14:13 left in the game and they had the gutty play of Bernard to thank. He went into the fourth quarter with 122 yards (70 rushing, 52 receiving) and his pin-ball eight-yard run after catch on which he juked linebacker Paul Worrilow into Kentucky put the ball on the Lions 12.
But Lions pass rusher Ziggy Ansah, working against left guard Clint Boling making his first and very impressive NFL start at left tackle, sacked Dalton to bring on Bullock. But after a sub-par first half Dalton started to heat up with Green and their 14-yard slant on third-and-two kept the drive going. Dalton overcame a tough first half to outplay Lions Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford (79.1-69.1 in passer rating) on 27 of 41 for 238 yards, one touchdown and a pick.
Randy Bullock avenged last year's missed Christmas Eve winner with a 51-yarder this year for the winning points on his first 50-yarder since 2014.
The Bengals took their first lead in three weeks with 5:52 left in the third quarter at 13-10 and got help from an unlikely source. Rookie running back Brian Hill, briefly spelling the dinged Bernard, was on the receiving end of Dalton's blitz read and took off for 34 yards. He shook himself free on a hellacious cut on cornerback Nevin Lawson that took him into the middle of the field. Dalton got the touchdown on a one-yard play-action flip to tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Old friend wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr., came back to haunt PBS with the Ghosts of Christmas Eve pasts at a few moments. On the Lions' first possession of the second half Jones launched himself in the air and outfought cornerback Darqueze Dennard for a 50-50 ball that Jones won for 31 yards. But when Bengals cornerback William Jackson came from the side to knock away a touchdown pass from rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay, Matt Prater kicked a field goal to give the Lions a 10-6 lead.
Then on the next series Jones drew a 35-yard pass interference penalty when Kirkpatrick never looked back for the ball on a go route. But Jackson knocked a pass away from Jones on third-and-two to set up Prater's 50-yard try and it was badly short as the Bengals kept their 13-10 lead. In his head-to-head with Green (six catches for 81 yards), Jones had three catches for 50. With its defense reinvigorated by the brief return of WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals struggling offense and a shaky Dalton fell behind the Lions at halftime, 7-6.
In what is reportedly Lewis' final home game, Burfict fittingly gave them a huge lift after missing the last two games with a concussion. But when he blitzed on third down and Stafford to force linebacker Vincent Rey's interception at the Bengals 47 with 1:01 left in the half, he injured his right shoulder and was done again.
That came a snap after Burfict collided with rookie linebacker Jordan Evans making a tackle and he was done, too, with a concussion. And just when you thought the Bengals' decimated linebackers were getting somewhat healthy. After completing 10 of 16 passes for 110 yards, Stafford had to go into the locker room salivating. But the defense dug in and ended up forcing him to miss 16 of 35 passes while throwing for only 203 yards.
Meanwhile, Dalton, off his worst back-to-back games as a pro, was again not good early, missing ten of 25 passes for just 117 yards. He nearly threw a bad pick after Rey's interception and couldn't get a go-ahead touchdown. But Redmond's block on a 15-yard screen pass to Bernard set up Bullock's last-play 27-yard field goal.
Dalton could find Green only twice in the first half for 31 yards, which did give him 1,001 yards for the season. When he did find him on third-and-five on the first play after the two-minute warning, Green had incidental contact with the Pro Bowler Slay at the top of a route down the left sideline and an offensive pass interference call wiped out a nifty 28-yard catch down the left sideline.
Dalton threw a bad interception off his back foot with no pressure that was airmailed over Green's head for his third pick in two games but he rebounded in the second half tp up his record to 2-0 over Stafford
Do you think Burfict makes a difference? When he got concussed on a cheap shot by Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back on Dec. 4, the Bengals were leading 20-13 with six minutes left. In the next two games and six minutes the Bengals got outscored, 77-14.
But with 5:48 left in the first quarter Sunday it was 0-0 after the Bengals forced two punts on the Lions' first two possessions. And after the Lions went up 7-0, Burfict forced another punt at midfield when he smothered a check-down pass inches from the first down.
The offense continued to struggle, although the rotating left guards Westerman (in his first NFL start) and Redmond (taking over in the second and fourth quarters) gave some muscle to the running game. The league's worst running game averaged 5.4 yards on 16 carries, led by Bernard's 61 yards on 10 carries in the half.
Rookie running back Joe Mixon had racked up all 32 their yards on the first two series rushing and receiving, but, just like Burfict, he was done with an ankle injury after missing the last two games with a concussion. Dalton got sacked on a second-down play-action on the third series when the coverage didn't let him unload and he had to eat it when tight end Tyler Kroft couldn't fend off Ansah. Then slot receiver Tyler Boyd couldn't handle a third-down pass down the seam.
The field position caught up to the Bengals at that point. Facing a third-and-five from the Bengals 33 Stafford smoked Evans when he sent Ebron on a go route down the right sideline and hit him in stride for a touchdown that made it 7-0 with 4:54 left in the first quarter. Evans, the sixth-rounder, is a nickel backer who excels at coverage but Ebron was pulling away from him when Stafford hit him with his 26th touchdown pass of the year.
The Bengals had an encouraging opening three plays out of the no huddle when Mixon picked up a first down on 12 yards on the first two snaps over the right side behind right guard Trey Hopkins and right tackle Eric Winston and then he picked up another first down when Dalton hit him on a wide-open swing pass.
But they looked just as bad on the next three snaps when an inside blitz didn't get picked up forced a low Dalton incompletion to Mixon, Slay (the NFL interception leader with seven) sat all over an out pattern to Green) and rookie wide receiver Josh Malone broke off a deep route when Dalton went long in a classic not-on-the-same-page incompletion.
And they didn't look much better on the next series when they were backed up at their 14. Hopkins false started and on third-and-five Dalton had good time, patted the ball, and threw a bomb to Green down the left sideline and had a step on Slay but Slay reached bumped Green at the last minute to foil the timing.
They did get a 29-yard field goal from Bullock to cut it to 7-3 with 7:35 left in the half when Bernard ripped off their biggest run since Oct. 21, a 25-yard sweep to the left. But Dalton missed Kroft twice with high passes down the seam, the last one in the end zone on third down, to bring on Bullock.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Detroit Lions in week 16 of the regular season.