Sunday's AFC North showdown against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium held true to the form of defense and line play when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton bulled in from a very long one yard out on a fourth-down sneak with 57 seconds left to give the Bengals a 27-24 victory before 57,711 amazed ones.
The Bengals defense then forced three incompletions from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and drew an offensive pass interference penalty on wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., working against safety George Iloka to wipe out an 80-yard touchdown and give the 4-2-1 Bengals a sweep of the 5-3 Ravens, first place in the North and control of the division.
Dalton's plunge snuck the Bengals back to the top of the North after a three-game winless streak and marked his eighth fourth-quarter comeback and 12th game-winning drive.
And, the most thrilling finish of their unbeaten streak at PBS that has now reached 13 games.
Dalton's 53-yard bomb to leaping wide receiver Mohamed Sanu at the Ravens 27 on on third-and-10 made it all possible. Ejected from the pocket and down to his play, Dalton whipped it deep and Sanu looked, stopped, and came back for the ball. It gave Sanu his second 100-yard day in three weeks with five catches for 125 yards as Dalton finished with a 89.3 passer rating. His 21 of 28 passing for 266 yards and two sneak TDs negated his interception.
After quick throws of 13 to wide receiver Greg Little and six to running back Jeremy Hill got them close enough for the winning TD, Dalton followed rookie center Russell Bodine into the end zone when he checked to the call after the Ravens responded to the Bengals spreading the field with four receivers.
They survived two crushing turnovers on back-to-back fourth-quarter possessions and various threats from Flacco. But in the end the defense held Flacco to a 43.1 passer rating and just 195 yards passing and picked him off twice with no TDs, giving him more than twice as many picks (11) than TDs (five) in his career at PBS.
Ravens running back Justin Forsett came into the game with an NFL-best 5.8 yards per carry, but had four Sunday (17-for-68) as the Ravens finished with 107 yards on 26 carries, a 4.1 workman-like effort for a Bengals defense that came in giving up 4.9.
The Bengals had a 20-14 lead with 11:24 left in the game, but untouched Ravens tackle Haloti Ngata had Dalton in his grasp after a play fake and knocked the ball from his left hand after a 21-yard sack. Linebacker Daryl Smith rambled 39 yards with the fumble to the Bengals 8 to set up fullback Lorenzo Taliaferro's touchdown on the next snap for Baltimore's go-ahead TD at 21-20 with 6:36 left in the game.
Then on the Bengals next snap, Sanu had the ball punched out of his hands by safety Matt Elam and linebacker C.J. Mosley caught the rebound at the Bengals 43. The Bengals held and Jason Tucker's 53-yard field goal with 3:59 left made it 24-20.
Two Bengals' interceptions of quarterback Joe Flacco in the third quarter set up 10 points and gave Cincinnati a 17-6 lead with 6:23 left in the third.
SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur dropped into coverage to make a leaping grab at the Bengals 49. Then right after Bengals running back Giovani Bernard converted it into a touchdown with a flying leap over center for a one-yard TD, Flacco and wide receiver Torrey Smith appeared to suffer a lack of communication and he threw it right to cornerback Adam Jones and he lugged it a few yards to the Ravens 18 for the Bengals first multi-interception game of the season.
The Bengals had cashed two touchdowns against Baltimore's NFL-best red-zone defense, but this time the Ravens held to force Mike Nugent's 32–yard field goal with 6:23 left in third quarter, his first attempt since the overtime miss against Carolina two weeks ago.
After Lamur's interception, the Bengals also stayed true to their game plan and kept it on the ground. The big play was a reverse to Sanu for 26 yards on the first play. Of the eight plays, the Bengals ran it six times to survive two incompletions.
But the defense couldn't keep it at 17-6. They gave up a third-and-10 when they blitzed two DBs and dropped defensive ends Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap into coverage and rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore was open over the middle for the first down.
Then linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey missed tackles in the middle of the field and Taliaferro turned a five-yard catch into a 29-yard gain. The Ravens then cut the lead to 17-14 when they took advantage of gaping holes on two runs. Taliaferro scored a touchdown on a 10-yard cutback and when running back Justin Forsett went in from three yards out standing up for the two-point conversion, it was a three-point game with 1:58 left in the third quarter.
But then Dalton went to his non-Green receivers and got huge plays from Brandon Tate for 13 and 17 yards and Sanu came up with two for 19 yards. Facing a third-and-three from the Ravens 15, Dalton had Little open on a go route down the right sideline in the end zone, but overthrew him and Nugent came on to kick the field goal to make it 20-14 with just under 12 minutes left in the game.
Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler appeared to re-injure his calf in the second half and left for the rest of the game. Bernard missed the last eight minutes with a hip injury.
The Bengals wasted no time making quite an opening state on the game's first drive against Baltimore's NFL-leading red-zone defense as they took a 7-6 half-time lead.
After he got sacked by Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs working against right tackle Andre Smith, Dalton withstood a rush in his face on third-and-14 and Little made a leaping catch at the Ravens 1 for a 21-yard gain. From there the Bengals were aided by Suggs' offside penalty and Dalton pulled off his second successful sneak of the drive that staked the Bengals to a 7-0 lead five minutes into the game and a week after the shut-out loss in Indianapolis.
The Bengals offensive line came out dealing. Working with double tight ends, Bernard banged up the middle for nine yards on the first two carries and then Dalton chewed up five yards for a first-down sneak behind Bodine.
Then on first down Dalton wasted no time and went for Sanu on a deep crossing route and even though he threw it high, Sanu bailed him out with a leaping one-handed grab and he kept cutting across the middle to the left sideline for a 48-yard gain that put the Bengals at the Ravens 18 to set up the red-zone action.
Before leaving, Bernard ran it 16 times for 45 yards and Hill added 10 carries for 25 yards. Throw in Dalton's six runs (four were for touchdowns or first downs) and Sanu's two reverses and the Bengals had six more runs than passes.
Then the Bengals defense turned the tables on the Ravens' first exhaustive drive when on the 18th play, a fourth down inside the 1, they forced quarterback Joe Flacco's incompletion to wide receiver Kama Aiken on a play-action bootleg. The Ravens had converted a fourth-and-one earlier from the Bengals 41, just moments after the Bengals nearly came up with rookie linebacker Marquis Flower's interception at the Bengals 20.
Right end Margus Hunt was all over Flacco's arm, but Flacco still threw and it went high along the right sideline. Flowers grabbed it, came down with one foot in-bounds and came close enough with his second foot that it looked like the Bengals might challenge.
They didn't, but they got a huge stand from the Ravens 2 on second and third down to set up fourth down. Defensive tackle Domata Peko combined with Lamur to stone running back Justin Forsett for no gain before Burfict teamed with linemen Wallace Gilberry to hold Forsett to a yard.
Both Burfict (knee) and Peko (toe) fought through injuries to stay on the field for the stand. Burfict was limping noticeably and after the drive went to the locker room to get checked. But he was back for the next drive and it didn't take long.
The Bengals couldn't get out of the shadow of the goal post and only Dalton's three-yard scramble out of the clutches of Elam in the end zone prevented a safety and they had to punt after the three-and-out and the Ravens set up shop at their own 49
Still, they appeared to force a punt on third-and-15 when Flacco took a check-down slant to wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., but defensive lineman Robert Geathers was called for a killer offsides penalty. Flacco made them pay by beating the blitz with a 17-yard pass down the middle to wide receiver Michael Campanaro, setting up Tucker's 45-yard field goal that cut the lead to 7-3 nearly six minutes into the second quarter.
Like they did in their last home game, a tie against Carolina, penalties killed the Bengals early. On the next drive, they were called for two holding penalties. Bodine was called for holding nose tackle Brandon Williams as Williams drove him back into Hill for a one-yard loss. Then on third-and-10, a hold on Andre Smith working against Elvis Dumervil wiped out a 20-yard gain to Little on the right sideline and they had to punt it away.
Baltimore continued its five-minute edge in time of possession when the Bengals couldn't force a punt on third-and-seven. Flacco found Smith Sr. in a hole in the zone for 13 yards and then Forsett cut behind center for another 12-yard gain.
But a penalty and then a third-down blitz by cornerback Terence Newman that forced Flacco to overthrow wide receiver Steve Smith set up Tucker's 50-yard field goal with 1:02 left in the to cut the lead to 7-6.
The Bengals looked like they had a shot to get some points in the last minute, but Dalton's 19-yard pass to Tate was wiped out by another Andre Smith hold on Dumervil. With 15 seconds left, the Ravens set up an 11-man rush of Bengals punter Kevin Huber and like he did last week with a franchise-tying 11 punts, he responded. This one was a 49-yarder that bounced out of bounds at the Ravens 6 with five seconds left in the half and Flacco took a knee to end it.
Penalties were the offense's main problem. Dalton hit seven of eight passes for 108 yards and they kept true to their game plan by running it more, although they had just 38 yards on 13 runs with Bernard (six) and Hill (four) splitting 10 carries.
Flacco went 10 of 18 for 106 yards and was effective on third down, where the Ravens went four-for-eight. Forsett added 41 yards on 10 carries in the half.
PREGAME NOTES: As expected, Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green went on the inactive list for Sunday's game against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. Not quite as expected, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson joined him.
Thompson's absence is also critical in the grinding game that's expected to decide control of the AFC North. Thompson, who sprained his knee Sept. 14 in the win over the Falcons, returned to practice Wednesday and Thursday at full go, but on Friday he went limited and was categorized as questionable.
The Bengals also put down rookie defensive end Will Clarke for the sixth time in seven games, so they went with seven down linemen in their effort to stop one of the NFL's hottest running games. Ravens running back Justin Forsett came in averaging a NFL-best 5.8 yards per carry for the league's seventh-best running attack.
Head coach Marvin Lewis sent the message early when he had the Bengals defensive starters introduced before the game.
Starting SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur returned after missing last Sunday's game against the Colts.
Also inactive were middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring), running back Rex Burkhead, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, and guard-tackle Tanner Hawkinson.
Uncertainty still surrounds Green's toe injury. He hasn't practiced since he re-aggravated the problem warming up for the Oct. 8 practice. They hope he can practice this Wednesday in preparation for next week's PBS game against Jacksonville, they aren't sure he can.
Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith bought several No. 75 Devon Still jerseys and brought a couple that he had left over. He instructed Ravens officials to hand them out to children in the stands not wearing jerseys.