The Patriots carded the Bengals before they could get in and belly up to Sunday's AFC Big Boy game at Paul Brown Stadium. And the Bengals, chaperoned by their offensive and defensive lines, got in with a very real ID that was very much their own.
In the backdrop of a week they fretted about the lack of an identity on offense, the rest of the team helped out its struggling brethren while the Bengals grounded and pounded and kept the ball nearly 10 more minutes than the Patriots and Tom Brady in a 13-6 victory that may be the hump game when all is said and done.
No, it wasn't pretty. But neither were the 20-10 win over Pittsburgh and the 34-30 win over Green Bay. Against Bill Belichick, the man that popularized "it is what it is," the Bengals were what they are. They live off the brilliance of their defense and special teams and they win when the offense plays the clock and field-position game.
It may put you to sleep. It also kept them in first place in the AFC North.
"That's us. We just have to face up to the facts," said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the former Patriot who fittingly scored the game's only touchdown in a one-yard mosh pit. "We're a pretty big team up front on both sides of the ball and pretty physical. We have to do that. Once we're physical with guys, it kind of opens up all of our stuff. Our dropback pass game. Our short, quick game. All of those things opened up."
Green-Ellis carried 19 times for 67 yards and rookie Giovani Bernard added 62 more on a career-high 13 carries as the Bengals ran it a season-high 39 times for 162 yards and passed it 27 times for 212 more. It gave offensive coordinator Jay Gruden his vaunted balance and harkened back to last year's second-half stretch when the Bengals won games carrying it 38, 34 and 41 times.
They kept the ball 34:16, gave Brady just 56 snaps, and kept their defense fresh enough to make every one of them a struggle.
"That's the kind of style of game you want to win," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the run game's most influential lobbyists. "We played a real physical game. New England's a different team than they have been in the past. They play a more physical game. It seemed like a good old AFC North game. We wanted to run and be real physical and it paid off."
Of course, the Bengals won't win anything scoring one touchdown per game and Gruden said as much. But he also said, "We all know we have work to do offensively. The way our defense is playing right now, if we can steadily improve, we've got a chance to be a really, really good team."
This defense is insane.
Two weeks after it held Green Bay's NFL-leading offense to three touchdowns despite playing 81 snaps, the Bengals defense took down its third Super Bowl-winning quarterback by rattling Brady enough that he offered just a 52.2 passer rating while having his streak of 52 straight games with a touchdown pass broken.
That left Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins just 25 minutes to show why he's worth every penny of his new $55 million deal. The Bengals followed his lead when on the game's second snap he blew past Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder to get a rare sack on a play-action fake.
"We had a saying before Brady came to town," said cornerback Adam Jones. "Brady is undefeated and Geno is undefeated, too. It was kind of funny. No. 97 is a remarkable player. Words can't even speak about those guys (up front)."
If there was anybody on the field who knows Brady, it was Green-Ellis, who spent four years huddling with him and took 10 handoffs from him in that Super Bowl loss to the Giants that looked a little familiar to him.
"Geno hitting him early; I think that kind of got him a little. Hitting him early on a simple play-action," Green-Ellis said. "You expect those plays like that to be max-protected, eight guys protecting him and he's still able to come in there and get a sack on him. That was big early on.
"The (Giants team that knocked off the Patriots) have a good defensive front. When you come with four guys, that's always a good recipe to be able to have more guys in coverage. And our DBs, they were all over the receivers. I think they only gave up one big play to No. 17 (rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson ran a crossing route for 53 yards). Other than that our defense kind of blanketed them all night. It was fun to watch."
It took an offensive player to sum up what defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer unleashed on the Pats. Consistent four-man pressure and tight press coverage, as well as mixing it up with the occasional blitz and zone.
"We were able to get after Brady from the second play from scrimmage and we were able to put him on his back," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "We showed them right from the start what kind of day it was going to be. That we were going to be physical and attack them and shut down the run and force them to be one-dimensional and pass the ball."
Whitworth wasn't the only guy that conjured up the AFC North. So did his fellow de facto captain.
"It was a big AFC North type of day where we attacked the line of scrimmage, showing them from the second play we ain't going to mess around," Peko said. "We stopped the run for the most part. They didn't have over 100 (the Pats finished with 82 yards rushing). That was one of our goals. We got that done. They didn't score a touchdown on our defense. That's a big day for us. We played our hearts out, everyone fought to the end on all phases of the game.
"How about that punt at the end of the game? That was huge. Everyone had a hand in it."
Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris wiped down well enough so Huber could launch a 57-yarder and set Brady back up at his own 35 with 1:48 left when the fourth phase kicked in.
"It came perfectly, right when they got the ball," Green-Ellis said of the late monsoon. "Well, it was raining when we had the ball, but when they got the ball it was just coming down in angles. I knew that ball was soaking wet. It was hard to throw. Things worked out in our favor today. We couldn't say that last week, so it's always a good thing."
And there are good things to say about quarterback Andy Dalton. He matches this team. Get used to this one, too. He's not a pretty, 6-4, 230-pound Pro Bowl thrower, but he wins games. He does it by distributing the ball and not by heaving it. He raised his career record to 22-15 by again not making the big screw-up and he has wins over Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers this season to prove it.
In fact, true to Dalton form, he made his biggest plays when it looked bleakest.
The snap after he nearly got sacked for a safety, he took a third-and-15 and gave the Bengals life when they caught the Patriots with a quick snap and he lofted a 28-yarder to wide receiver Marvin Jones that got the 93-yard touchdown drive started.
Then on the next to last play of the drive, after an illegal procedure pushed the ball back to the Pats 5, Gruden spread the field and Dalton scooted far enough on a draw that head coach Marvin Lewis went for it on fourth and a yard.
"If it had been at the three or four, we probably would have taken the field goal," Gruden said.
Dalton also has that innate ability to bounce back. The last time the Bengals beat an undefeated team at PBS (nearly two years to the day on Oct. 2, 2011), he had a miserable first half against Buffalo, but then came on to engineer his first fourth-quarter comeback.
On Sunday he threw the first red-zone interception of his career on the final play of the first quarter, much to Gruden's dismay. Dalton came into the game with an NFL-best 37 red-zone TDs without an interception on 155 throws inside the 20.
"It was a terrible one," Gruden said. "Never throw the ball across your body. Every high school coach in America teaches that. I guess we forgot this week."
Dalton then had his first throw of the second half dropped by tight end Tyler Eifert and he started the half with five straight incompletions. But he ended the game hitting nine of his last 10 passes.
"I thought we did some good things. We were keeping drives going with a mix of run and pass, completing balls," Dalton said. "It's big. Especially when we have the ball, their offense isn't on the field, I think that was kind of a big key in the game as well."
To a man the offense says it has to get better. But there was a sense on Sunday, too, that they may have found something.
"We ran the ball a lot, we were physical with them. We were built to be that way," Whitworth said. "You can look at the skill positions and we have some good skill players, but the truth is, up front, our O-line is still a skill as well. We've got a lot of guys that can be physical and like to be that way. It doesn't matter if its run or a pass, just to be able to call plays where we have a physical nature and we were able to do that."