For drama, it was somewhere between crazy Shakespeare (think King Lear) and Theater of the Absurd. But for NFL power rankings validation, Sunday's inexplicable 34-30 victory over the Packers at Paul Brown Stadium may be Cincinnati's most logical step yet in its quest to join the elite and the NFL's upper echelon.
"I'm glad we came out on top because I would have been sick to my stomach," said left end Carlos Dunlap. "Because we had them. That was crazy. It just shows you if you stay focused, things can change. This is a big-time win. We needed a win like that. ... It's going to pay dividends over the long haul when we get into another situation similar to that."
The knock on head coach Marvin Lewis's Reboot headed by A.J. Green and Andy Dalton the past 35 games is the Bengals haven't beaten anybody. On Sunday they beat a perennial playoff team and a Hall of Fame quarterback who in those last 35 games has rung up 10 100-yard passer rating games on the road and leads all NFL passers in overall rating in that stretch.
After Dunlap's bookend giant on the edge, right end Michael Johnson, jumped to tip Aaron Rodgers's fourth-and-five pass from the Bengals 20 with 1:21 left, it marked the first time in 37 games Rodgers had thrown more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one). With Rodgers finishing just 26-of-43 for 244 yards (64.5 rating), the Bengals extended their NFL-best streak to 17 straight games without allowing a 300-yard passer.
"We know now we can play with anybody," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, whose fourth-quarter sack helped set up the game's turning. "Big win for the city. Big win for us."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, with Peko the deans of the outfit now that Robert Geathers is on injured reserve, has seen enough to know he just saw something special.
"That team's pretty good; they're upper echelon for sure," Whitworth said. "I don't know who's better and Aaron Rodgers, that guy is so good it's almost fun to watch him even when you're playing him.
"If we can stay focused and be committed, this team's got a chance."
The Steelers may be 0-3, but it is not lost on Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green that in the last six days at home the Bengals have beaten teams in the Packers and Steelers that have been elite for much of this century.
"I feel like last year we didn't take that step to beat the signature teams," Green said. "But this year we're coming out with the W against premier teams in the NFL."
Lewis got his regular-season record to .500 at 81-81-1 Sunday, but he's clearly hoping his team has left the middle of the road.
"If we want to be a good team, we have to beat good teams. That's how you end up being a great team," Lewis said. "If we can keep improving in the critical areas of the game, we'll be alright. We have good players here too and they showed up today."
There was a lot to digest in Cincinnati's crawl back from 16 points down with 18:50 left in the game. Among them were four straight turnovers on offense in the first half, two roughing calls, 12 men on defense, and a blocked extra point. Plus, the Packers turned it over four times, fumbled a kickoff and, like the Bengals, rambled in with a field goal for a touchdown.
Cornerback Leon Hall, who has been here long enough to have 23 career interceptions after Sunday's pick brought him two closer to the great Lemar Parrish and fourth on the Bengals all-time list, also knew a memory when he saw it.
He says the Spike-Strike Game of '09 against Denver when the Bengals got beat on an 87-yard tipped pass with 11 seconds left will always be No. 1 on the crazy list.
"But this is in the top three," Hall said.
Even the kids knew it was something special.
"The defense had our back in this game," said rookie running back Giovani Bernard, another game, another speedy highlight. "Which means we'll have their back hopefully in another game."
But unlike two weeks ago in the chaotic fourth quarter in Chicago when the Bengals blew all their timeouts before the eight-minute mark and then the lead, the Bengals didn't melt. Lewis kept the sideline together and he calmly made the play of the game when he challenged the officials' spot with 4:01 left that gave Green Bay a first down at the Bengals 29. It was overturned and so was the game.
And it was the Packers who lost their cool. Both Bengals touchdown drives in the second half were aided by 15-yard penalties, one a personal foul and the other unecessary roughness.
"We told them to keep hanging. We got a little depleted in the end, but we were able to hang in there," Lewis said. "The players played. When we got to the fourth down in the fourth quarter, we won. That's where we lost in Chicago. Today we were able to win it."
So after the Packers scored 30 straight, the Bengals scored 20 straight.
"I didn't know that," said Johnson, the star of the game. "I never look at the clock. The only clock I look is the play clock."
But he admitted he looked at the big clock after Rodgers's last pass grazed his fingers and he turned to see the sideline exulting.
"I think it said 1:12 or something like that," Johnson said.
It's OK that it said 1:21. After all, this was an upside down game all the way.
"It's one of those games that if you stay with it, you always get a chance," Whitworth said. "We've got a lot of talented guys, but we've also got guys that care about football. We assume if we play the way we're supposed to play, we'll win and the defense did that today. It put us in position and then (the offense) answered the bell late in the game.
"That's a sign you've got a team to be reckoned with."
For the Bengals, it was a strange, beautiful afternoon they hope is a threshold to the elite. Probably best exemplified by middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's conversation on the field in the second half with cornerback Terence Newman and the Bengals scraping back to 30-21.
It was during a TV timeout and Maualuga told Newman, 'You need to make a big play. You're going to make an interception or something.' "
"This is a situation where big players step up and make big-time plays. He answered the call," said Maualuga, who then watched Newman pick off a Rodgers pass over the middle.
But he said he's no seer.
"I just anticipate the good players to make the good plays and he's a good player and he made a great play," Maualuga said.
Maybe it wasn't so crazy after all.