NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In this 6-2 run into first place in the AFC North, the Bengals have slain their fourth-quarter demons with a deathly brew of young cool and old school.
On Sunday here at LP Field in the 24-17 victory over the Titans it was the rookie combo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green that lifted the offense and the veteran savvy of 11-year cornerback Nate Clements and the 22-year-old legs of left end Carlos Dunlap that led the defense and these improbable Bengals to their fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the season and third on the road.
Dalton, the Red Baron, and Green, The Green Hornet, are becoming the Super Heroes of the Bengals New Era. Dalton riddled the Titans for three touchdowns on third down and Green stung Tennessee with his wingspan that engulfed all seven balls Dalton threw at him for 83 yards, including a DVD 20-yarder on third-and-18 in the winning drive.
It took Dalton eight starts to do what Carson Palmer did in his third season. Palmer also got his third fourth-quarter victory and second on the road at Tennessee. It was on Oct. 16, 2005 in his 35th start.
"The fourth quarter is like the first for us; we still have that energy," defensive tackle Domata Peko said of the D-line rotation that held Titans running back Chris Johnson to nine yards on five carries in the second half of a game the Bengals didn't allow a touchdown in the second half for the third time this season.
The words of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's training camp T-shirt "Find A Way" always seem to come out in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter. That has always been an albatross for this team in the previous eight seasons of the Lewis era until this year, when the Bengals are hammering foes by 87-43 in the fourth quarter and 126-59 in the second half.
The Bengals are on pace to score 252 second-half points, easily beating the 197 supplied by the 2004 team. And their projection to score 174 points in the fourth quarter alone is more than what the Bengals have scored in the entire second half in the past three seasons.
"You know what I like?" asked left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We're stubborn. We come in the next week still trying to do the same things even if they didn't work the week before. If you're stubborn, you can find a way to win."
The Bengals also have the brains to adjust. While the offense stretched Tennessee's zone coverage more on the outside in the second half with Green and wide receiver Jerome Simpson, the defense sealed off Johnson's perimeter runs and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer backed off the blitz.
The Bengals came into the game with just one fumble and eight fumble recoveries for the best ratio in the NFL, and the Titans had only fumbled twice. Clements, who came up with a huge pass defensed in the fourth quarter of the Buffalo comeback and blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter to preserve the win over the Colts, was able to rip the ball from tight end Jared Cook at the Titans 21 to set up Mike Nugent's 36-yard field goal at the two-minute warning that accounted for the final.
"We just keep fighting no matter what; we don't stop fighting until the clock ends," said Clements, who forced the game's first turnover between two teams that just don't fumble the ball with 3:49 left in the game. "Our focus and mentality, which is definitely another thing that's impressive because we have such a young team that we don't get really caught up in where we are right now and we focus on where we need to go. There's a lot of maturity on this team."
And it is coming from the youngest players at the most pressurized positions. Until he threw his last incompletion of a day he went 22-of-39 for 217 yards with no interceptions, Dalton was tracking his fourth triple-digit passer rating. He'll have to take 97.9 and the first three-touchdown day of his career.
"I think our guys are doing a great job of understanding," Lewis said of the second-half magic. "So we are coming out, we are playing, we're taking away the things we feel we need to do a better job defending or running or whatever it is, how we are getting attacked offensively, etc. I think it's a credit to the players for picking it up and being able to move forward with it, not lingering or dwelling on the past and coming back and making plays."
Making plays? Green's 20-yard catch with 11:39 left in the game and the Bengals trailing, 17-14, was an opera. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham noted right tackle Andre Smith had been beaten inside on a third-and-eight play from the Titans 17, which resulted in a holding penalty that set up a third-and-18 from the Tennessee 27.
Enter The Red Baron and The Green Hornet. Dalton airmailed a bullet to the right sideline as Titans cornerback Jason McCourty and safety Michael Griffin converged on Green, but the only thing that made it work was the enormous trust Dalton has in Green's wingspan that seems to sting anything that comes close. Like a true hornet, Green doesn't die after using his stinger. After leaping above the two DBs, he got up with the ball as McCourty and Griffin were splayed on the ground in pain after sandwiching Green and had to be assisted off the field after a few moments.
"It was an unbelievable play. It was a big part of the game. We needed that," Dalton said. "If not, we would have had to kick a field goal. A long one. He went up and got it. It's the trust we have in that. We had a chance to get him on that. I wasn't going to throw him right out there in the corner. He just went up and got it."
Green came out determined to have a better game than last week in Seattle, when he felt he lacked aggressiveness on deep balls. Mission accomplished.
"I ran that route a little flatter. I just undercut the ball. I adjusted to it," Green said. "I heard them coming, but they weren't attacking the ball like I was, so I was going to attack it before they reached it."
Green did the same thing on the play that turned the game around, a 45-yard pass interference play on McCourty trying to cover a bomb to Green down the right sideline in the middle of the third quarter. That put the ball on the Titans 20 and the Bengals cut the lead to 17-14 three plays later on third-and-five with 6:33 left in the third quarter when Simpson held on to Dalton's 15-yard laser despite getting blown up by two defenders at the goal line.
"I had position on him," said Green, who had McCourty by a step. "But I wanted to make sure this time that I went up and attacked the ball and that would help get a call (if they threw a flag)."
If there were any doubts about The Baron's arm strength, he left them strewn across the Tennessee countryside. On his winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Caldwell with less than 11 minutes left on third-and-five from the 5, Caldwell said, "He threw a dart ... (I had to catch it) to protect myself."
Both Caldwell and Dalton saw Caldwell was matched up on a linebacker in a zone, just the mismatch they like, and Dalton unloaded it.
"When the pressure is on, that's when he's at his best," Caldwell said after his duel with one-time Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan in the slot. "We made some adjustments at halftime. We figured out what we had to do. We had our outside guys work a little more vertical ... yeah, it gave me a little more room. A little more separation."
Dalton did the same thing back in the second quarter when he rolled out right on third down from the Titans 1 and improvised long enough to find rookie tight end Colin Cochart breaking off his route toward the right corner. Dalton screeched to a halt and threw a screamer across his body for the game's first touchdown and the first touchdown catch of Cochart's career.
"He threw a dart," said Cochart, who went to his knees to cradle it. "He threw it the only place I could catch it."
But, as usual, the Bengals were a long way from wrapping it up. Dunlap, as has become the norm the last three games, closed it. Against Indy he returned a fumble for a 35-yard touchdown with 2:22 left. Last week he logged his first sack of the year on third down with three and a half minutes left and the Bengals leading by eight. On Sunday, he got his second sack of the game with seven seconds left.
He appeared to hurt his hamstring and couldn't get off the field, or else it would have been the last play of the game. But he had found a way to dent an offensive line that was fourth in the NFL allowing sacks per pass.
"Once he got that first one," defensive tackle Domata Peko said, "I knew they were going to start coming."
Dunlap, at 22 and younger than the last Bengals Super Bowl team, sounded like an aged veteran by the time Sunday was over.
"We've got guys from big universities and good organizations and everybody knows how to win and knows that feeling," Dunlap said. "So you want it that much more when you get that feeling."