Updated: 6 p.m.
The Bengals offense rustled from a nap in the crypt in the first half Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium before they rode the play of their beleaguered rookie quarterback to a fourth-quarter comeback victory when Mike Nugent nailed a 43-yard field goal at the gun to lift the Bengals to a 23-20 win over the undefeated Bills at Paul Brown Stadium before 41,142.
It was the Bengals' first walkoff field goal in regulation since Shayne Graham beat the Browns by the same score at PBS in 2005, their first win coming back from 14 down in the second hallf since 2004, and Andy Dalton's first fourth-quarter comeback win of his career. With the Browns and Steelers losing, a Jets win over Baltimore on Sunday night ties everybody in the AFC North at 2-2. It also ends the Bills 10-game winning streak over the Bengals and gives the Bengals their first win over Buffalo since the Jan. 8, 1989 AFC title win.
Dalton, just 7-of-20 in the first half, finished 18-of-36 for 298 yards, and got the crucial first down when he stretched out the ball at the Bengals 46 on third down with 45 seconds left. A 15-yard screen pass and 14-yard run by running back Brian Leonard set up Nugent.
Dalton's three-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw with 4:09 left capped a 10-play drive that featured Dalton's 17-yard pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham as he rolled out of bounds, running back Cedric Benson's 14-yard gash over the right side on his way to 104 yards on 19 carries, and wide receiver Andre Caldwell's eight-yard catch and run that picked up a first down at the Bills 3.
The Bengals defense, brilliant all day, then forced a punt at the two-minute warning on third-and-five when linebacker Thomas Howard had a pass defensed while defensive tackle Geno Atkins gave heat to Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Dalton got the first Bengals touchdown in seven quarters when he found Gresham running to the flag for a one-handed 17-yard touchdown catch that cut the lead to 17-13 with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
But in contrast to their big plays that gave them an NFL-best 38 points per game coming into the game, the Bills responded with a grinding 17-yard, 75-yard drive that took 9:04 off the clock and gave them Rian Lindell's 23-yard field goal with 11:22 left in the game that jacked it back to 20-13.
Down 17-3 at the half, the Bengals looked dead on arrival until rookie wide receiver A.J. Green breathed life back into his team on the second half's first series with an acrobatic leap and fingertip catch over his head for a 40-yard gain that put the ball on the Bills 7. But a false start on right tacklle Andre Smith on the next snap limited the Bengals to Nugent's 21-yard field goal that made it 17-6.
Green would go on to finish with four catches for 118 yards in becoming the first Bengals rookie receiver to have multiple 100-yard games since Darnay Scott in 1994.
The Bills defense did what the Bengals have been trying to do desperately all season Sunday when safety Bryan Scott plucked Caldwell's bobble off his shin and went 43 yards for a back-breaking touchdown that broke up a 3-3 game with 3:20 left in the first half and Buffalo's NFL-leading scoring offense finally broke through three minutes later for its first touchdown of the day with 40 seconds left on running back Fred Jackson's two-yard run for a 17-3 lead at the half.
It was a gruesome half of offense as Dalton had his worst 30 minutes as a pro. He was wild high much of the half and take away the final 24 throwaway yards on the last four snaps of the half, the Bengals could manage just 144 yards.
Dalton was 7-of-20 and a rating of 15.8 His lone big play was a 58-yard fling down the right sideline that the leaping Green grabbed off cornerback Drayton Florence's helmet and then ran for several more yards to put the ball at the Buffalo 25 with less than three minutes left.
But after Dalton and Benson couldn't hook up on a low screen pass that was open, Dalton tried to hit Caldwell over the middle. Safety George Wilson was in front of him and picked it off for Dalton's second interception of the game and fourth in the last three quarters.
Fitzpatrick, having a bad day himself until that point despite his 103 passer rating this season, finally solved the Bengals No. 3 defense that played as advertised until the last two minutes of the half. The Bengals blitzed two defenders and when the Bills picked it up, wide receiver Stevie Johnson turned around cornerback Kelly Jennings at the line of scrimmage, broke off his route on a slant, caught it and took off for 44 yards to set up Jackson's touchdown.
Until then, the Bengals had cooled the red-hot Fitzpatrick, holding him to 10-of-20 passing for 121 yards and 1-for-7 on third down in the half and 4-of-14 for the game. He finished 20-of-34 for 199 yards with no touchdowns after coming in among the NFL leaders with nine.
The Bengals scored first but for the sixth time in nine trips into the red zone this season they had to settle for a Nugent field goal, a 31-yarder at the end of their third drive that gave them a 3-0 lead with 2:02 left in the first quarter.
But it took the Bengals nine plays to go 34 yards as backup running back Bernard Scott got five of the touches. Benson broke the third-down drought when he converted a third-and-1 for a six-yard gain when fullback Chris Pressley took on linebacker Nick Barnett.
The Bengals, 2-for-21 on third down in the previous two games, went 3-for-8 in the half and 5-for-12 in the game.
Yet when they got in the red zone, Benson got dragged down for a two-yard gain by Wilson on the back side on second down and on third Dalton had Green open in the right corner of the end zone and he overthrew it into the sidelines.
The Bengals running game was nowhere to be found in the half against a team rated 24th against the run. Benson carried it eight times for 17 yards and Scott four for 16.
Where would the Bengals have been without the defense? Fitzpatrick was able to convert only one of the Bills' first eight third-down tries in the half and that was on a third down screen pass to wide receiver Brad Smith against a three-man front that went for a 16-yard gain that set up Lindell's tying 43-yarder.
But it was courtesy of sheer luck. Fitzpatrick threw into double coverage and the ball got batted with a thud. It went sideways and wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt was an innocent bystander for his first catch of the season.
The Bengals gave up two short completions to Jackson right away to start the game, but the Bengals then forced a punt when they put heat on Fitzpatrick. He hurried a throw out of bounds on second down as right end Michael Johnson knocked over Jackson on his way to Fitzpatrick. The Bengals sent six on the play with safety Chris Crocker blitzing and they tried it again on the next snap and he hit Fitzpatrick as he threw an incompletion to Johnson coming over the middle covered by Jennings.
Then on the next series, after cornerback Morgan Trent downed Kevin Huber's punt at the Bills 6, the Bengals defensive line wrapped up Jackson for five yards on two carries to put Buffalo in a third-and-five. Fitzpatrick split out Jackson and took a shot at him streaking down the right sideline, but Howard had good coverage and Fitzpatrick underthrew him.
The Bengals caught a huge break early in the second quarter when the refs took a defensive touchdown away from the Bills after they sacked and stripped Dalton for Scott's 13-yard touchdown run on the fumble. But the officials ruled that Dalton, drilled by linebacker Chris Kelsay coming on a stunt off the right edge, had his arm forward in a passing motion and escaped with a punt.
The Bengals' best play of the half came on the first series on wide receiver Andrew Hawkins' first NFL touch, a second-effort zig-zagging 25-yard run after a catch at the line of scrimmage.
PREGAME NOTES: In what could be the foreshadowing of a game the Bengals want to emphasize the run and special teams, they replaced rookie Clint Boling in the starting lineup with veteran Mike McGlynn at right guard and made Hawkins one of their five active wide receivers for Sunday's game.
They opted to go with five receivers and instead of activating rookie Ryan Whalen, suited up Hawkins, an excellent player in kick coverage faced with tracking the dangerous tandem of kick returner Brad Smith and punt returner C.J. Spiller. Smith popped a kick return for a touchdown against the Bengals when they lost to the Jets last Thanksgiving.
The right guard situation becomes even murkier Monday when eight-year starter Bobbie Williams returns from his four-game NFL suspension. The Bengals are allowed a week's exemption for the roster spot but it's unclear if they'll use it. A lot may depend how healthy they come out of the game Sunday.
Offensive line coach Paul Alexander said he's been working with Boling "every day" on his penchant for playing high and not getting low enough.
But a lot is riding on the Bengals defense against the top scoring Bills offense. The Bengals came in ranked third overall, first in yards per rush and were introduced before the game. Head coach Marvin Lewis kept the confidence flowing when the Bengals won the toss and deferred.
Except for Whalen, the inactive list is what it was last week with safeties Robert Sands and Taylor Mays, offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Otis Hudson, linebacker Dontay Moch and tight end Colin Cochart.
Right guard Kraig Urbik and cornerback Terrence McGee were the two starters down for the Bills.
As usual, Fitzpatrick, the former Bengal, was out early on Sunday warming up about 150 minutes before the game. Bengals assistant coaches Jay and Jon Hayes stopped by to chat and update each other on their families. Fitzpatrick blew on his hands in the 51-degree morning and commented on the Western New York weather.
Legendary Hawaiian entertainer Danny Kaleikini had one of the greatest warmups in PBS history as he showed off his pipes with a variety of riffs.