DETROIT — The Bengals offseason blueprint has turned pink, the color for October after Sunday's third straight victory gave them a two-game lead in the AFC North 11 days before Halloween.
Now the Bengals, who were left for dead on the bottom of Lake Erie three weeks ago, have won games in all kinds of ways in all kinds of venues against all kinds of foes amid all kinds of adversity to stand at 5-2.
But all of them right down to the last snap.
The Bengals kept a future Hall of Fame quarterback on the sidelines in the Oct. 6 win at home against the Patriots with 162 rushing yards, stoned a journeyman quarterback on the goal line in Buffalo last week while getting three players more than 100 scrimmage yards, and on Sunday they outscored Lions pure passer Matthew Stafford despite the devastating loss of arguably their best defensive player in cornerback Leon Hall.
"I think it shows more that we've grown up. Whatever situation you put us in, we can do it," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I've said it multiple times. The real thing is how do special teams play after the defensive stop? How did the offense get a drive to kick a field goal? We've done it two weeks in a row in every single phase of the team, everyone had to (contribute) whatever it took to win the game. You can't get any more than a team win than that. Then to do it two weeks in a row says something about the entire team."
At Ford, paper came to life:
On offense, the weapons stockpiled for quarterback Andy Dalton in the past three drafts rolled out for the second straight week in the 27-24 walkoff win over the Lions. Last week it was wide receiver Marvin Jones and rookie running back Giovani Bernard having career days in the passing game. This Sunday it was Jermaine Gresham grabbing passes of 30 and 22 yards and fellow tight end Tyler Eifert adding his first NFL touchdown with a 32-yard catch working one-on-one against Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis in the end zone like a wide receiver as Green was doubled on the other side. Dalton wove 372 yards and three touchdowns into a career-best 135.9 passer rating.
On defense, the stunned survivors who fought back tears when they watched arguably their best player tear his other Achilles 23 months after he ripped his left one rallied around the absence of Leon Hall to defuse Megatron just in time with the ageless Chris Crocker leading the charge.
And special teams turned the game when defensive end Carlos Dunlap came up the gut to block a first-half field goal and it won it with punter Kevin Huber's obligatory late missile inside the 10 and Mike Nugent's 54-yard field goal for his second straight last-play winner.
"We've got guys that can make plays all over the place," said wide receiver A.J. Green, who made six of them for a matching 155 yards with mentor and Lions legend Calvin Johnson. "Eifert, Jermaine, Gio, Marvin, Mo (Sanu), Dane (Sanzenbacher) came in and made another big deal. That's what we're trying to do. We've got a lot of great weapons on this offense. You can't focus on taking me away because the other guys can hurt you as well."
After the game Green and Johnson traded jerseys. During the game they each had the numbers of the other's defense. Green set the tone for his epic joust with Johnson, his offseason workout partner, on the third Bengals snap when he fried cornerback Chris Houston in one-on-one coverage with a double move for the longest play of the Green-Dalton era, an 82-yarder that gave the Bengals an early 7-0 lead.
Green had to wait on it as he got inside Houston at about the Bengals 40, but Houston had no shot to gather himself because he so was so badly beaten.
"A lot of people give Andy heat, but I feel that he's the guy that can take us to the next level," Green said.
Dalton, like his team, just keeps plugging along. He jacked his passer rating into the 90s and now has a starting record of 24-15 that is the best winning percentage of any Bengals quarterback with more than 10 starts.
On top of his 337-yard effort in Buffalo, those are the most prolific back-to-back games of Dalton's career.
"This is a great example of why there's not one thing we need to do best," Whitworth said. "They came in and said we're not going to let them run the football. They shot the gaps. They brought everything to the line of scrimmage. What they said is it's not going to happen and we're going to make Andy Dalton beat us. He made the plays. He made some great throws. He put the ball in places for people and rose to the occasion. The greatest identity you can have is for this team to be hard to stop and do whatever it takes to win. Sometimes you can get wrapped up in the identity being run or throw. We want our identity to be winning football games.
"(Dalton) continues to show why everybody in this building loves him so much."
Eifert caught himself looking at Dalton's stats Sunday.
"I was looking up at the fantasy scoreboard that they play during the game and he's up there with the leaders and he has half the attempts they do," Eifert said. "He's just an efficient guy playing well."
Suddenly, the Bengals are the team to chase in the AFC North with Pittsburgh's victory over Baltimore. The team that always seemed to be trying learn how to win is on a three-game winning streak by a total of 13 points. When they come back to Paul Brown Stadium for next Sunday's 4:05 p.m. game against the Jets, the Bengals will be trying to get to 4-0 at home for the first time since the magical 8-0 run at Riverfront Stadium in 1988.
"Any time you win a game like that on the road, a tough game like that, that can do nothing but give you confidence," said cornerback Terence Newman. "We know if we get down early, it might be ugly, but we can come back.
"We've got a lot of talented payers playing smart football; that's important. Talent alone doesn't get wins. It's teams that fight hard with each other. That what it's about."
The best part of Sunday for Whitworth may have come three-and-a-half hours after the game, when the Bengals got back to PBS. He talked last week about how several of the young core players stuck around after the bus dropped them off from the Buffalo trip so they could dip into the cold tub and begin preparing for the next game.
Now that means the Jets.
"To be honest, it's different than last year with this team," Whitworth said. "I don't know if this team is worried about how Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland does. Our mindset is we're not here just for the division. We're here to win games and put together a great season. That's why this win is a big win. It's an opportunity to play a good Jets team at home. That's the only focus we've got."