SAN DIEGO — It was the toughest of wins in the toughest of months, a West Coast game to start December against a contender, and when the Bengals emerged from Qualcomm Stadium with a 15-round 17-10 decision over the Chargers head coach Marvin Lewis knew exactly whom and what to thank.
"We're a tough bunch and they thrive on toughness and grit. They're led by tough people up front on both sides of the football," Lewis said. "You have to hand it to the secondary a bunch too. To me, they gritted it out today. I thought they did a great job of battling and controlling. It's a great win to come out here and do it like this."
Lewis had a roster of tough guys to celebrate the win that puts the Bengals at 8-4 and on the brink of his team-record third division title and third straight playoff berth now that they have a two-game lead on Baltimore with four to play.
Lewis can start with a retooled offensive line that responded to left guard Clint Boling's season-ending knee injury on the fifth play of the game with a massive game of 164 yards rushing in an effort that saw the Bengals melt the last 4:43 with eight straight runs and two kneeldowns from quarterback Andy Dalton even with Boling and right guard Kevin Zeitler on the bench.
"We put it on our back. Our defense played their (butts) off and the O-line run blocking like that, there's no better feeling," tackle Anthony Collins said of the kneeldowns. "I wanted to get the field goal, make the score look good.
"This game felt good. We got that swagger when we run on people. Not just the O-line, the tight ends. They blocked their (butts) off today. At this time of year it's going to be hard for teams to stop us."
Lewis could have started with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who moved from left tackle to left guard and gave new meaning to the team's power play. And no one was tougher than running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and his 92 yards on 20 carries. With the Bengals leading, 17-7, with about seven minutes left, he fumbled on the doorstep of the red zone and gave the Chargers a life and field goal. But Lewis put BJGE right in the fray again.
"All the offensive guys had my back. The coaches gave me the ball. I was very happy about that," Green-Ellis said. "I was excited that Coach gave me a chance to go out there and get more touches at the end of the game so I could make up for the fumble. You can never make up for those. The whole team had my back to get another chance."
Green-Ellis carried seven of the eight straight times in the final drive, the last a pile-moving five-yarder on third-and-four that had Whitworth waving his fist in the air even as The Law Firm moved past the marker.
"We all were," Whitworth said of the emotion of the moment. "I felt like offensively we played with a lot of emotion. There are a couple plays we would like back but the emotion was good. If we can bottle that up and keep it for this stretch we'll have the chance to be good.
"I had pulled like 12 consecutive times. I was exhausted. To get in there and finish like that … . People are quick to be negative about four-minute offenses. 'They didn't keep the other team off the field.' The truth is, it's hard as possible to run the football. Literally the defense knows exactly what's coming. In that case we ran the same play at them 10 times in a row. And all they have to do is make a stop and get off the field. It's in their favor. It's a huge feat on the road to physically handle a team like that and in 4:43 they don't touch the ball again."
Now it's going to be interesting to see if Whitworth stays at left guard for the rest of the year. It sounds like he wouldn't mind.
"You hate to see a guy go down but I get fired up to play inside," Whitworth said. "AC is a more than capable left tackle and he is able to step in. I love to be a tone-setter inside.
"Physical strength and explosion, I have a lot of power. Hand strength and those kinds of things, when you move inside and are also very athletic, you can tee off on people with athleticism and power. I've always felt comfortable in there and it's always where I felt more natural. Hopefully I get an opportunity to play some more."
Certainly BJGE wouldn't mind after running behind Whitworth 10 times on the power play where Whitworth pulls to the right. Not in this month of Sundays.
"It was old school with Whit in there," Green-Ellis said. "He's so big, when he pulls I can't even see the linebacker. You just pick your poison. Wherever you want to go. (The backer) can see me, but he just can't see me fast enough. Once Whit blocks them up (the backer) has to make a decision; that's what you want. The line did an awesome job. They were hyped up from the very beginning. We have to be able to establish the run because the time of the year. It gets cold. The weather might be a factor, especially in the AFC North, in Cincinnati."
Green-Ellis smiled in agreement when asked if the offense was dying for a game like this. "I would say that is a correct statement," he said. It was one yard off the club's season-high rush total of 165 set in Buffalo on Oct. 13 and 38 rushes was the most since that day the Bengals hit a high of 41.
"We talked about setting the tone and playing with that kind of style," Whitworth said. "When I got moved inside my first thought was I know this is an area where I can kind of dominate. I wanted to set the tone for the guys inside. This is the kind of tenacity, energy that we can play with. I could feel all the groups rally around that kind of energy."
It was good enough to overcome another tentative passing day with Dalton hitting just 14 of 23 passes for 190 yards. But Lewis could have been talking about him, too, because Dalton hung in there after a brutal 21.2 passer rating in the first half to outpitch Philip Rivers in passer rating, 83.6 to 80, at the end of the day.
And haven't the Bengals been through this before when it comes to finding their identity as a smashmouth offense? Dalton is now 18-3 when the Bengals run it at least 30 times.
"I think for us we've been able to do different things. Certain games we've run the ball well and the run game has been working and other games we've had to throw it a lot," Dalton said. "I think for us it depends on the game and what we're needing to do that's helped us win a lot of games this year.
"I think we can do so many different things so as long as you're winning games and it's working, that's all that matters."
Tough? Lewis also could have been talking about slot receiver Andrew Hawkins. After leaving briefly with a hamstring issue, he converted a huge third-and-two down deep early in the fourth quarter and did what he does in accelerating for 50 yards. The burst set up Mike Nugent's 46-yard field goal for a 10-point pad with 9:16 left.
Hawkins hasn't received many chances in his four games since returning from injured reserve-recall with an ankle injury, but he showed there why his speed is so valuable. Working out of a bunch formation on the left side, Hawkins took a well-thrown flip from Dalton after Dalton had plenty of time to stare at his options and he was able to scorch people groping at the first-down spot.
"Very few times does the play work just like you draw it up and that one did," Hawkins said.