Tackle Domata Peko, the conscience of the stubborn and proud Bengals defense, wanted to know if going 8-0 at home had ever been done in Cincinnati. Told not in 25 years, Peko smiled as big as an 11-5 season.
"History; it's awesome," Peko said after Sunday's 34-17 victory over the Ravens made perfection official. "That's one of the goals we had at the beginning of the year. Be undefeated at home, win the division, and win the Super Bowl. We've got two out of the three right now. We're on a mission to get the next one."
The Bengals defense made its own bit of history Sunday. It finished the season third in the league, its highest ranking since the 1983 unit led the NFL, and it was accomplished by allowing just eight touchdown passes all season at Paul Brown Stadium and racking up six touchdowns of its own in a building where it suffocated the opponent on third down holding foes to a stunning 23 percent on 24 of 104 third downs.
And the Bengals wrapped it up by holding Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco to a miserable 49.8 passer rating when they intercepted him three times in a 9:09 span in the fourth quarter, making Cincinnati 4-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks at home this season and holding them to a combined 56.7 passer rating with just three touchdown passes.
"Honestly, we feel good going into every game no matter where it is … if we don't beat ourselves than nobody can beat us," said nickel back Chris Crocker. "On defense, we're as confident as anyone could possibly be. We were (on point) today. We had a good week of practice. We were the bullies today."
That's what left tackle Andrew Whitworth talked to his teammates about in the locker room before they walked down the tunnel to claim the first unbeaten season in PBS history. Get some respect. It struck a chord with his defense.
"It seems like no matter what we do around here people doubt us," Peko said. "But we were just talking among ourselves. We have to earn it against the former champions. They needed a win to make the playoffs. Shut the door on them. I think we got a little respect today. I think as long as we keep winning people are going to see we're not the regular old Bengals. This is a hard-fighting team. We don't give up and we stick together."
Never was that more apparent in the opening moments when the defense had two huge stands that followed quarterback Andy Dalton's two interceptions on the first two series. The Ravens got the ball on the Bengals 21 and moved it just a yard on their first possession and moments later had it on their own 35. They could manage just two field goals.
"It could have been 14-0," Peko said. "We just wanted to show them we're not messing around today. Before the game, we talk about taking the field like we own it. One play a time and when we do that there aren't many teams that can mess with us. When there's a sudden change with (a turnover), the whole team gets ready."
The defense bailed out the offense four times for each of Dalton's interceptions, allowing the Ravens to convert just three field goals off the miscues. If you've seen defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer shut down Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady at PBS, then you saw him stop Flacco. The Bengals smothered the run (47 yards on 14 carries) and made the Ravens offense so one-dimensional that they forced Flacco to throw 50 times. While they sacked him just twice they hit him seven times and were able to defend 12 passes.
What Zimmer does so well is break down protections and on this day he blitzed more than usual on second down while mixing his pressures with a stout four-man rush that made a bit of a comeback Sunday. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick got his pick-six against a four-man rush with 4:07 left in the game to close out the scoring and Crocker got his pick early in the fourth quarter off right end Michael Johnson's ninth tipped pass of the year. And Kirkpatrick's first interception came against an all-out blitz on a hurried deep ball.
The Bengals were a bit surprised the Ravens didn't max protect that much by keeping in eight men to block. The one time they did, on the opening series of the second half, they fouled it up and running back Ray Rice didn't pick up the blitzing Crocker and he was a free runner for a sack.
It was quite a display of Cincinnati's depth as the 33-year-old Crocker starred in his 151st NFL game in the last game of his 11th season and the 24-year-old Kirkpatrick finished his first full season after an injury-plagued rookie year with a coming-out party.
"We know Coach Zimmer in and out," Crocker said of his six-year defensive coordinator. "We know what he likes to call. We know his standards and how he wants it. We play that way and we're well-prepared and we have playmakers. The depth we have is unbelievable. That really helps."
Depth? How about this? Kirkpatrick gets two picks, is the star of the game, and he probably goes back to the bench for the playoffs next week when veteran Terence Newman returns from his four-game hiatus with a sprained knee.
"Me, Terence Newman and Adam Jones, we're not the future," Crocker said of the veteran cornerbacks. "Some of the guys really have to take the torch by the hand and move. There has to be a transition at some point and he's come along."
Kirkpatrick was also big on the third-down stops on the two first two drives when the Ravens could have blown it open with touchdowns. He teamed with safety George Iloka to defend wide receiver Jacoby Jones on a deep incompletion into the end zone on the first series and then came back to force another field goal when he was all over tight end Dennis Pitta across the middle of the end zone and forced Flacco to throw it high.
"He's growing. It's hard being in that situation because he didn't play (much) last year," Crocker said. "It's hard to get those reps, it's hard to learn when you're only practicing. He's coming along just as well as he can. He's a young guy. Really hungry and really emotional."
On Sunday, the veteran and the kid used Zimmer's torch to burn another Superman.
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