Bengals sneak a shove into first place

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Make no mistake. Everybody had a hand (or leg or arm or nostril) in the winning touchdown.

And it was a yard longer than the five years between sweeps of the Ravens.

From Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson telling quarterback Andy Dalton to take the sneak if it was there, to Dalton coolly noticing the coverage, to rookie center Russell Bodine and guards Mike Pollak and Clint Boling getting the push, to rookie running back Jeremy Hill shoving Dalton ahead at the last instant, to wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Greg Little converting third downs to get them under the goal post with the season on the line Sunday in the Indian Summer shadows of late afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.

But maybe it was fitting that left tackle Andrew Whitworth was the guy that Dalton saw on top of him under the triumphant pile at the end, coaxing him and muscling him to the most decisive touchdown of the season on fourth down with 57 seconds left against a Ravens defense leading the NFL in least points allowed and lowest touchdown percentage in the red zone.

"We run a quarterback sneak and all you do is try to get behind him and push him and the guys in front are pushing and the guys in back are pushing," Whitworth said. "It's a total group effort and it's an opportunity to prove we want to win and that's what we did.

"We said all along we're going to have to pull together. We knew the guys who hadn't played much were going to be in there and it was going to be up to our leadership, like we said all week last week, to find a way to help those guys along. Find a way to get them up to par. I think it was a great job by our team and our leadership all week working with those guys to get on the same page."

The coaches noticed it on Wednesday when they had their most crisp and shoulder pads crackling practice in weeks. On Thursday Whitworth took his veteran's day off, but took a more active role than usual in the huddle with the younger players. On Sunday it was a grinning Whitworth who opened the doors to the locker room of the first place Bengals, inviting in the media.

"You guys feeling better now? Don't feel as bad about it now?" Whitworth asked of the outside world that gave the A.J. Green-less Bengals no shot Sunday.

"It's a big statement," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, along with Whitworth the de facto captains of the Green-Dalton Bengals. "Like I told (the media), hey put a smile on your face, the world ain't over yet. Because everyone kind of jumped off the bandwagon around here. But we just kept together as a team; we all fought and had a great week of practice. We know where we are in our division. We're No. 1 now. We just have to keep doing it one game at a time."

One of Whitworth's leaders turned out to be the third-year understudy to Green, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Sanu, a third-round pick, may not have the fourth-pick pedigree of Green, but what more could he have done Sunday on his way to 125 yards on five catches?

His magical one-handed catch over the middle on a ball thrown several feet over his head turned into a 48-yard play to fuel the first touchdown.  His 26-yard run off a reverse set up the second touchdown. And his monstrous 53-yard catch on third-and-10 from the Bengals 20 with 3:48 left in the game when it all looked so bleak and made it all possible.

"He's done a fantastic job and also brining other guys a long," Whitworth said. "Being that guy that supports new guys like James (Wright) jumping in there. He's been kind of a mentor. He's been doing a fantastic job. I'm really proud of Mo and the kind of leader he's become."

Dalton made The Play happen when he had to step up in the pocket and run away from linebacker C.J. Mosley in a leaking pocket. Then he planted and launched his out-and-up to Sanu running past cornerback Dominique Franks. Franks passed him to safety Terrence Brooks, but Brooks didn't find the ball and Sanu knifed back for a leaping catch on the slightly underthrown ball.

"He threw it the way we wanted to. I was just able to come back and make the play," Sanu said. "I wouldn't trade him for anybody."

The fourth-quarter comebacks are becoming rather common. It was Dalton's 77-yard touchdown pass to Green with 4:58 left that won the opener and it was his drives at the end of regulation and overtime that should have beat Carolina. But if the Bengals didn't have Green Sunday, the Ravens also didn't have cornerback Jimmy Smith, gone with a leg injury after the first series.

"Mo's been great," Dalton said. "This is my third year with him. I have a lot of confidence in him, and he has a lot of confidence in himself that he's going to go make plays."  

  The two turned disaster into ecstasy with equal aplomb. Both bounced back from crushing turnovers on the two previous series that gave Baltimore 10 points and a 24-20 lead with 3:59 left.

First, Dalton made a horrendous decision with 6:49 left. The Bengals were at the Ravens 32 and about to stick in the knife with a 20-14 lead.

But he kept holding the ball out in his left hand when defensive tackle Haloti Ngata jumped a play-action rollout and it turned into a what-is-he-doing 21-yard sack and fumble that ended up in linebacker Daryl Smith's 39-yard return and Baltimore's go-ahead touchdown on the next play.

    "I didn't think he would be on me that quick," Dalton said. "As soon as I turned around, I still had the ball in my left hand, I've got to find a way to get it tucked."

But this is why Dalton got the big money back on Aug. 4. Even though he had just made the worst play imaginable, the best play was still to come. Just like he suffered his first NFL shutout a week ago on 1-for-13 on third down, he led a 350-yard effort on 8-for-14 against a team sacking people on third down routinely.

"He can just block it out and go," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "That's one of Andy Dalton's best qualities, other than his accuracy at passing the football. But it's his ability to block out the negative play and just keep going. We had the ball, obviously, in good field position, and we flip it around and the next play they score. So a lot of bad stuff there."

Then on their next snap, Dalton went to Sanu over the middle and safety Matt Elam wrenched the ball from Sanu's stomach and popped it into the air for Mosley's interception at the Bengals 43.

"Matt made a tremendous play and got his hand between me and the ball and was able to rip it out of there," Sanu said. "I just knew I had to stay calm. The ball is going to come my way again and I have to make a play."

The mental resolve matched the sheer physical toughness the Bengals displayed against one of the most physically demanding teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball. They had a goal-line stand on defense and on offense they drove in three red-zone touchdowns against a defense that had allowed eight all year.

And they did it by never giving up on the run, scoring all three TDs from a yard out with a total of 10 runs and four passes inside the red zone.

Dalton was as tough as anybody, admitting he got the wind knocked out him in the second half lead blocking on yet another reverse.

"They don't pay me to block," he said.

On Sunday, the blocking paid off.

"We put a big emphasis on (the run) today," Dalton said. "The guys up front wanted to run the ball. It was the mindset of this game that we were going to run it against them and I think that was a big reason we got into the end zone."

It's a mindset that Whitworth thinks can carry them.

"It's a great win since it's against a great team. There's not that many guys for the Baltimore Ravens you'd trade for anybody," Whitworth said. "Their front seven is by far the most physical, the fastest, explosive group we'll play all year long. You kind of saw the run we made after we played them (in the opener.) The truth is, after you play those guys, it's hard for another group to really strike fear in you. All around it's hard for another team to be physically worried about.

"It's not any more of a win," Whitworth said, "but it's against a really freaking good football team. That team's good."

Sanu was asked what he thought of the last call, the last physical act on such a grinding, satisfying day.

"Great call," Sanu said. "It worked."

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