With the sleet holding off at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium, rookie running back Giovani Bernard skated to a career day while quarterback Andy Dalton navigated the 25-degree weather and the golden arm of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck with three touchdowns passes and one rushing score to help the Bengals stay unbeaten at Paul Brown Stadium in Sunday's 42-28 victory.
The Bengals continued to dominate at home in extending their PBS-record winning streak to seven games and 6-0 this season in a game they scored at least 40 points in three straight home games for the first time in history. And they did it surviving just their second 300-yard passing game since Week 2 of 2012 when Luck matched Dalton's four touchdown passes with 326 yards on 29-of 46-passing.
Wide receiver Brandon Tate added 153 yards in both return games, including a 43-yard punt return with 7:18 left that put the ball on the Colts 29 and gave the Bengals another chance to melt the clock with the run game like they did last week in San Diego, leading 35-21. And they did with five runs on the next six plays. On third-and-two from the Colts 8, Dalton bootlegged to his right and when he couldn't find anyone open he cut it back to the middle and went in untouched to make it 42-21 with 4:02 left.
Dalton hit 24 of 35 passes for 275 yards for a passer rating of 120.5 while Bernard flirted with his first 100-yard game with 99 yards on 12 carries. He also had 49 yards on four catches. Dalton's touchdown passes came to three different receivers, a 29-yarder to wide receiver Marvin Jones, a nine-yarder to wide receiver A.J. Green, and a one-yarder to tight end Jermaine Gresham. Jones also had a huge, tumbling 29-yard catch on a nice ball from Dalton on the left sideline on third-and-two at the Colts 11 that set up Green's touchdown with 13:25 left in the game that made it 35-21.
Before 62,507 the 9-4 Bengals grabbed the all-important tiebreaker against the 8-5 Colts. As amazing as it sounds, the Bengals clinched nothing after dismantling the Colts and the Colts clinched the AFC South as they headed back home while Denver finished off Tennessee.
The Bengals moved past the Colts to take the lead for the AFC's No. 3 seed. But the Miracle Patriots still hold a one-game lead for the No. 2 seed and the 7-6 Ravens are still in the AFC North chase, trailing the Bengals by two games with three to play after their own miracle against Minnesota.
After bolting to leads of 21-0 and 35-14, Luck brought the Colts to within 35-21 when he threw his third touchdown pass of the day with 9:48 left on a perfect 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver LaVon Brazill just over the outstretched hand of cornerback Terence Newman. Newman didn't return with a knee issue.
After the Colts cut it to 21-14 on a mass of missed tackles, Bernard stepped up. Bernard, who had 148 yards on 16 touches, fried Colts linebacker Pat Angerer in coverage on third-and-two for a 22-yard catch that set up a wide-open TD pass to Gresham from one yard out.
The Bengals jumped to a 21-0 lead over the Colts early in the third quarter and then watched rare lapses by their defense and special teams to allow the Colts to score two touchdowns in a span of 3:37 to cut the lead to 21-14 with 6:20 left in the third quarter.
The Colts went the first half without converting a third down, but on their first one of of the second half Luck threw an eight-yard flip over the middle to wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers and watched him turn it into a 69-yard touchdown with 60 coming after safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Adam Jones missed the tackle.
Then a few moments after the red-hot Kevin Huber faltered with a 30-yard punt to the Bengals 48, Luck bolted out of the pocket when left end Carlos Dunlap just missed securing a sack for 29 yards. Luck then hit wide receiver LaVon Brazill on a crossing route and then saw a total of six Bengals miss Brazill as he pinballed to a 19-yard touchdown that made it 21-14. Safety George Iloka, got a blow to the head on one of the missed tackles and didn't return.
It marked the first time in 10 PBS games that an opposing quarterback had thrown more than one touchdown pass. And the two TDs were exactly one half of the four the Bengals had given up in the five previous home games.
Dalton rained down completions on the Colts during his first drive to stake Cincinnati to a 7-0 lead and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis's hellacious second-effort on fourth-and-goal from the 1 gave the Bengals a 14-0 lead at halftime.
It appeared with 1:06 left in the half that the Bengals had been stymied on fourth down from the 1 when they blocked the run to the right perfectly with Green-Ellis following defensive tackle Domata Peko as his fullback and right guard Mike Pollak pulling. But Colts tackle Josh Chapman penetrated from the back side and just barely tripped up The Law Firm. Green-Ellis dove for the goal line, but his knee appeared to touch the ground before the ball hit the goal line and the ruling on the field was no TD.
But with everyone assuming the call would stand up to replay, the refs surprisingly reversed it to cap off Cincinnati's 66-yard touchdown drive where Bernard set up the Law Firm. On the series' first play G-Man cleanly beat linebacker Jerrell Freeman in coverage and took off on a 22-yard reception and he added a 14-yard run when he scooted to the perimeter and skated behind right tackle Andre Smith and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Bernard finished the half with a blurry 54 yards on five carries and he teamed with BJGE's 23 yards on nine carries to give the Bengals 6.9 yards per carry in the half. With Dalton hitting of 12 of 19 passes for 139 yards for a 102.7 passer rating, it was a nice mix as Luck struggled to a 63.9 rating on 10-of-20 for 96 yards.
Dalton opened the scoring when he hit wide receiver Marvin Jones on a pretty "go" ball for a diving 29-yard touchdown catch just 5:22 into the game.
The Colts beefed up the box with eight players to shut down the Bengals run, so Dalton hit his first five passes and six of seven in the drive for 81 yards and his 15th drive of the season of at least 80 yards. A sliding catch over the middle by wide receiver A.J. Green converted a third-and-two and with Gresham split wide and isolated on safety Antoine Bethea, Dalton drilled a quick out to convert a third-and-three.
Dalton then chucked a beauty down the left side to Jones, scoring for the first time since his record four-TD performance in PBS against the Jets on Oct. 27. Jones almost seemed to shift into to a higher gear when he saw the ball over his right shoulder as he sped past cornerback Vontae Davis and sold out on a dive to make the catch.
Coming into the game the defense had held foes to 26 percent on third down in running the Bengals PBS record to 5-0 and the Bengals responded Sunday by stifling Luck on his six tries in the first half. They finished the day putting Indy through a dreadful 2-for-10 day on third down.
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey dropped one third-down pass with cornerback Adam Jones on the coverage and on another linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vinny Rey swarmed running back Donald Brown for a two-yard gain when Luck had to get it of it quickly because Dunlap rode in untouched. Wallace Gilberry, working at end this time, also denied a third-down conversion when he hit Luck as he threw to force an incompletion.
The Bengals came up empty after that first drive when the Colts did a nice job gumming up the run game, but Bernard began to make things happen early in the second quarter. He worked behind a double-team block of center Kyle Cook and Pollak for 21 yards and came back for eight more when tight end Tyler Eifert locked up with SAM linebacker Erik Walden for big drive block.
That had the Bengals set up for a big play, but on first down Dalton barely overthrew Eifert running past Walden at about the Colts 20 and the Bengals ended up punting.
Luck resorted to short passes and they got the Colts to the Bengals 29 when running back Trent Richardson took a dump pass and wriggled out of a tackle by SAM linebacker James Harrison for 22 yards. But the Colts whiffed on their fifth straight third down when nickel back Chris Crocker's blitz forced a three-yard completion to tight end Coby Fleener on third-and-10 to bring on Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri came into the game with just two misses from inside 40 this season and one was blocked. But this one from 44 drifted right on him despite little wind and just missed the upright wide to keep it 7-0.
The biggest Colts weapon, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, had no catches in the half on three targets, and did't catch his first ball until 12 minutes left in the game. He had just two catches for seven yards.
PREGAME NOTES: The last piece of tarp rolled off the Paul Brown Stadium turf about 90 minutes before Sunday's kickoff, at about the same time the swirling snow stopped and conditions didn't look all that bad as a smattering of Bengals and Colts began to warm up gingerly bundled up in sweat clothes. Plus, new weather forecasts had the sleet storm slated for the afternoon missing Cincinnati.
So as kickoff neared it looked the day would just be cold with hardly any wind. And it was all of that with the 25-degree temperature feeling more like 17 as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis handed in his active sheet. The only suspense was if left tackle Andrew Whitworth would make his first start at left guard for the first time in five years and that's what happened with Anthony Collins making his third start of the season at left tackle.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton showed up for warmups in a long-sleeved shirt, a glove on his left hand and no glove on his throwing hand. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who grew up 15 minutes from Dalton in the Houston area, was in short-sleeves with no gloves.
Even though right guard Kevin Zeitler (foot) was active for the first time since Nov. 10, Mike Pollak got his third straight start in his spot. Pollak, a second-round pick of the Colts in 2008, has played well and offensive line coach Paul Alexander indicated he'd be using more than the starting five during the game. Zeitler returned to practice on Thursday and Friday and was limited both days.
The only semi-surprise on Lewis's list was tight end Orson Charles, inactive for the first time since the second game of the season. Also out for the Bengals were the five guys that sat last week: wide receivers Dane Sanzenbacher and Ryan Whalen, running back Rex Burkhead, safety Tony Dye, and defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi. The newly re-signed right tackle-guard Dennis Roland was also inactive.
The Colts sat down four injured starters, including their two guards, Hugh Thornton and Jeff Linkenbach. Cornerback Greg Toler was down for the sixth straight game and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois had already been declared out.
Former Bengals right guard Mike McGlynn, benched last week, returned to the starting lineup for the Colts.
Before he went out to midfield as an honorary captain, Ken Riley, the Bengals all-time career interceptions leader, saluted the crowd as some of his 65 career picks appeared on the scoreboard. Fittingly, Lewis announced the defensive starters. And why not? The Bengals have held foes to 15 points per game in going 5-0 at PBS this season.