Updated: 10:40 p.m.
BALTIMORE - In what is fast becoming an unforgettable season, Carson Comeback and his Cardiac Cats, along with a family dedicated to football and each other, took Bengaldom on another gut-wrenching Kings Island roller coaster ride Sunday.
Leon Hall would remember how Vikki Zimmer's can't-miss cookies would especially show up after wins, but he knows this is going to a different Monday in the wake of the Bengals' 17-14 victory Sunday over the Ravens that gave Cincinnati its first 3-0 start in the division since 1989 with three wins pulled off in the last 22 seconds or less.
The win follows Cincinnati's 23-20 wins over Pittsburgh and Cleveland the last two weeks, and according to ESPN, it marks the first time since the merger that a team has won three consecutive division games by three points or less.
"We've got no talent, just heart. No talent, just heart," bellowed left tackle Andrew Whitworth as he walked off the field.
Lewis passed on the same sentiments in his postgame news conference.
"They keep telling me talent is overrated," Lewis said. "No talent. Just 11 guys playing together."
Clearly the Bengals had plenty of talent on Sunday. First, Zimmer's unit held the NFL's No. 3 offense to 257 yards and one touchdown. Secondly, the Bengals offense dented the NFL's No. 1 rush defense for 142 yards on 34 carries. That was a 4.2 average against a defense that had been giving up 2.6 per carry.
Palmer's 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Caldwell with 22 seconds left for his third straight fourth-quarter comeback and 10th of his career shared the spotlight with a defensive effort for the ages. The Bengals defense forced the big-play Ravens offense to check down for six yards per throw while beating the Ravens on eight of 11 third-down plays and shutting out leading receiver Derrick Mason.
Coaching in unspeakable grief with his father, son and daughter in the stands, Zimmer helped dial up one of the most emotional victories in Bengals history after the sudden death of his wife of 27 years on Thursday. After his unit had held Ravens long ball quarterback Joe Flacco to just six yards per pass, Zimmer got the game ball from Lewis and Lewis said he told the team, "You know how Vikki felt about all of you. She's up there smiling. Win or lose.'"
TV clips showed Zimmer mobbed by the players before he raised his hand as he also said, "I want to thank y'all for your effort."
Hall hauled down Flacco's last desperate bid with an over-the-shoulder interception with four seconds left to end it at the Bengals 17.
"Coach Zimmer would always come in there after a win and say, 'Here's some cookies. My wife says I'm being too hard on you guys,' " Hall recalled Sunday in a locker room steamy with emotion. "We dedicated this one to Coach Zimmer and his family."
Bill Zimmer, a Hall of Fame high school football and wrestling coach in Illinois who instilled Mike Zimmer with a gym-rat toughness, and Adam Zimmer, the look-alike grandson with Mike's NFL pedigree who serves as the assistant linebackers coach for the Saints, took in the locker room scene with a mixture of awe and sadness as Lewis handed Mike the game ball.
Lewis choked up in his news conference as he recalled the Post-it notes around the Zimmer home when he went to Zimmer's aid Thursday night. The notes Vikki wrote to remind herself to bake some stuff for the guys.
There will be no cookies this Monday, but there is a win in large part because of the Zimmers' steel will.
"I had a gut feeling he wanted to be out there," Hall said of Zimmer's decision to coach. "A lot of guys just would have called it quits for the week. But Zimmer's a special kind of guy. It was definitely an emotional moment for everybody."
Safety Chris Crocker, plucked off the street by Zimmer last year after they hit it off in Atlanta two years ago, was part of a secondary that jammed the passing lanes with seven and eight men and had Flacco unsure where to go.
"I know it was a game for the division lead, but to see Zim on the sidelines was more uplifting than words can express," Crocker said. "You can't even put a quote on that. Just seeing him and the game he called, he put us in position to make plays today. That just shows how much this means to him. To focus through such a tragedy is just huge and means a lot to us."
There were a lot of stories out there.
Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco wants to box and his good friend, Ravens Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis, gave him a boxer's welt around his right eye courtesy of a head-hunting shot with 48 seconds left that separated The Ocho from his helmet in midair and gave the Bengals life at the Ravens 35 with an unnecessary roughness penalty.
"He should have just pushed me down," The Ocho said. "I told him I loved him."
There was Dennis Roland promoted to right tackle in the third series and fending off Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs for no sacks on a day the Ravens had just one sack. There was Caldwell's second winning catch in the last 22 seconds against the teams in last year's AFC title game and Cedric Benson's 27 carries for 120 yards extended the Bengals record to 24-1 under Lewis when a runner carries at least 25 times.
Palmer threw for 271 yards and threw his third tying or go-ahead touchdown pass with at least 1:55 left this season wearing a glove on his sprained left thumb. He jammed it trying to break a tackle by putting his hand on the ground. His response when he had to hand off right-handed?
"He told me to rip it out of his hand," Benson said.
And Lewis is now back to .500 in the regular season at 50-50-1.
But it was all dwarfed by the game Zimmer called even though he told his players before the game.
"He called a great game," Crocker said. "We had some missed tackles, but we made some plays.
"We just did what we were supposed to do. I'll leave it like that. Guys were in the right position. You saw their quarterback checking the ball down a lot. There wasn't (anybody to throw to). That's how they've always beaten us (with the long pass). Whether it was a reverse pass. Reverse deep ball. That's what we talked about this week. Don't get beat by the cheap gadgets or the crazy stuff and we felt like we were going to win this game."
In a season the Bengals have blanked No. 1 receivers in Green Bay's Greg Jennings and Cleveland's Braylon Edwards, add Bengals-killer Mason to the list. Baltimore's two leading receivers Sunday were running back Ray Rice (seven catches for 74 yards) and tight end Todd Heap (seven catches for just 41 yards) and it looked like Zimmer stunned the Ravens by not blitzing as much as he usually does.
The Ravens like to max protect by giving their tackles help, and they really wanted to do that Sunday with injury forcing rookie Michael Oher to make his first NFL start at left tackle. So with the Ravens putting, at the most, three men in routes on passing downs, Zimmer countered by backing off a blitz that would have a hard time getting there, anyway, and blanketed the three wides with seven men much of the time.
And the Bengals put a pretty good four-man rush on Flacco (a sack each by left end Robert Geathers and a rare blitz by middle linebacker Dhani Jones). Check out the third-and 16 from the Bengals 20 late in the first quarter.
With the Bengals reeling from a blown field goal on their first drive and the Ravens banging out 66 yards on 11 plays before a false start on center Matt Birk, Flacco took a shot at Heap in the end zone, but cornerback Johnathan Joseph dropped off his guy in a zone and leaned back for his third interception in as many games and second straight end-zone interception.
"The thing about the zone is it allows you to read and react," Joseph said. "I just popped back off my man and made a play on the ball."
The defense confounded Flacco just enough to give the Bengals offense time to figure it out. The Bengals had two touchdown passes dropped (fullback Jeremi Johnson and tight end Daniel Coats), they had a red zone fumble in the last minute of the first half (wide receiver Chad Ochocinco) and five pre-snap penalties.
"We're all family. Everybody cares about each other," Crocker said. "Words just can't describe what this team has been through since I got here. This team lost a lot of games before I got here. By three points. Two points. Overtime. Those situations now are going our way. We've been there on that side, so we know how it feels."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» On his game-winning 20-yard touchdown reception from Palmer, wide receiver Andre Caldwell said it was a play where there were four receivers running vertical routes.
"It was one-on-one, the best man wins, and I was able to beat him (Chris Carr)," Caldwell said. "He held me to one catch all day but I guess I did save the best for last. I want to be known as Mr. Clutch. That's what T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) was when he was here. I faked like I was going outside and I went inside and it was wide open."
» Palmer was as emotional as he's shown on the field, pumping his fists and jumping into Whitworth's arms after the winning play.
"There's nothing like winning here," Palmer said. "It's like a college atmosphere. It's such a fun place to be. It's like a college game with the band. You've got Ray Lewis's dance with the intro. You've got little kids flipping you off and cussing you out. It's an awesome place to play and an even better place to win."
» With Benson gouging the Ravens for 120 yards on the ground, it marked the first time in 39 games that Baltimore has allowed a 100-yard rusher. The last to do it was Kansas City's Larry Johnson in late 2006.
"They do a good job of reading the zone," Benson said of the Ravens. "Their linebackers are real good. They're trying to take away the cutback. We run our zone different than most teams. We were able to stretch the guys to give us some room and make some gaps. The offensive line did a good job being on their man. When the linebackers fell back to take away the cutback I was able to read it and take advantage of what I saw."