Carlos Dunlap celebrates with fans after his 14-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Just like his team during this December stretch run, Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap had enough energy to scale the end-zone wall Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium after his 14-yard interception return for a touchdown vaulted the sprinting Bengals into the playoffs with their seventh victory in the last eight games and hottest defense ever in the five landmark seasons of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
"Against Indianapolis I didn't have enough energy to get up there," Dunlap said of last season's 35-yard rumble with a fumble. "This time I had to make sure I got up there because I wanted it to be a highlight to remember."
Dunlap celebrating with Bengaldom after his P.B. Plunge with 6:06 left in the 23-17 victory over the Ravens highlighted a 7-1 finish built on defense and the push for momentum going into Saturday's Wild Card rematch (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Houston. The Bengals had enough in their legs to finish 10-6 with their first four-win December in history and go into the playoffs against a Texans team that lost a chance for a bye in Sunday's loss to the Colts.
"This group is pretty salty right now," Zimmer said with one of those rare smiles. "The quarterback had some runs on us today, but we play the run pretty well, we can choke down receivers a little bit, and we can rush the passer, and typically we've been good on third downs lately. If you're going to do those four things and play well in the red zone, you've got a chance.
"I'm going to take my guys against anybody."
If there has ever been an example of the culture change that Zimmer shot through this defense when he arrived in 2008, Sunday was it. The franchise of Paul Brown, Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason and Chad Johnson is going into the playoffs riding one of the NFL's stingiest defenses, three top 10 finishes in the last four years, and a belief it can wreak havoc in the postseason with a unit that produced a franchise-record 51 sacks, good for second in the league.
"History shows that it's great and good defenses that win championships," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, who reminisced about those days it was a team all about offense. "This is the best we've ever played going into the playoffs."
The defense took over in December while the offense flagged. While the Bengals scored a defensive touchdown in each of the last three games, the offense scored four. The Bengals went 4-1 in December even though the offense scored just seven touchdowns, and on Sunday against a host of Baltimore backups in the first half they did nothing until quarterback Andy Dalton hit three straight passes for 37 yards to get rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones's first NFL touchdown on an 11-yard pass with 39 seconds left that tied the game at seven.
With running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis iced with a tight hamstring from pregame warmups, the running game jammed up for a second straight week with just 2.2 yards per rush on 21 carries. Dalton didn't look at Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green until 51 seconds left in the half, when he hit him on two passes for 26 yards. Dalton went to the bench after the half with just 78 yards passing, and so did Green as he finished three catches shy of 100, but the defense had everyone feeling upbeat about The Rematch.
No one thinks Houston can put up 31 on the Bengals again and despite the offensive woes, no one thinks the Bengals will score just 10 on this return trip to Reliant Stadium.
"It's a little bit (of a) different situation, because last year, we had to have a lot of other things happen for us to get to the playoffs," Dalton said, "This year, we controlled our own destiny and were able to get in on our own. I think that's a big difference in this team, and I think the experience of last year is going to help us (this time around)."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth would like to see more points, but he says 7-1 in the last eight is 7-1.
"We found a way to win; it doesn't matter who was in there," Whitworth said. "No question we're going to have to run the ball efficiently.
"Now it doesn't matter if you're 12-4, 8-8, or whatever your record is. Everybody has a clean slate. I think we found ways to win games and the thing we needed to learn as a young team is find ways to win games. The progression was last year we were predicted to go 1-15 and we made the playoffs at 9-7. This year we were predicted to make the playoffs, we went 10-6 and we did it. The next progression is to win a playoff game. Anything short of that is not a good season for us."
The Bengals think they can do some damage this time because their relentless front four is happy and healthy. A year ago at this time, Dunlap was hurting with a hamstring injury. Now he's coming off a game he returned his first NFL interception as well as recording his sixth sack of the season.
And right end Michael Johnson rung up two more sacks, giving him 11.5 and making him and defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5) the first double-digit Bengals sackers since left end Eddie Edwards and outside linebacker Reggie Williams in 1981.
"It just shows what ability we have on our team," Dunlap said. "We've got two guys with over 10 sacks and our backups have seven. That's a pretty good year for us. It just shows how strong our rotation is."
Actually, Wallace Gilberry has 6.5 and Dunlap has six, but where it really counts is on third down. The Bengals gave up 206 yards rushing to Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Tayor's option attack, but it became a footnote instead of a headline because they won the game with Dunlap's pick-six, and they shut down Baltimore on 28 percent of third-down conversions (5-for-18) that fits in with the December trend of 33 percent at 25-for-75.
A pass rush can hide a lot of blemishes. The Bengals had been so good against the run, but Taylor's legs accounted for 65 unorthodox yards. In the previous four games the Bengals had allowed just 232 rush yards combined.
"I told the players in the meeting last night that it's important to have the best defense going into the playoffs over the last eight ballgames," Zimmer said. "I don't know if we are or not, but it's important we have momentum going into the playoffs. If you're playing good defense you have a chance to win the ballgame."
If there's been a lesson in Zimmer's five years, that's it. It's one even the kids get.
"If they can't score," said rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, "they can't win."
The Bengals have been doing more than that. Since beating the Giants in their ninth game, the Bengals have given up just an average of 282 yards per game, 97 on the ground while allowing 12.8 points per game. Compare that to the first half of the season, when they gave up 359 yards, 117 on the ground, and were allowing 27.3. The 352 the Ravens put up Sunday that was part of a preseason-ish second half were the first time the Bengals allowed 300 yards since that Giants game, and since the Nov. 4 game against Denver they haven't allowed more than 20.
The reasons are numerous, chief among them the re-signing of safety Chris Crocker in time to play in the fourth game of the season. It was a limping Crocker that provided the snapshot of last year's Wild Card loss in Houston when he and everyone else couldn't haul down Texans running back Arian Foster on a 42-yard TD run with 5:15 left in the game that finished off the 31-10 win and gave Houston 188 yards rushing.
Crocker did get dinged in the quad Sunday against the Ravens and had to leave the game in the first quarter, but he says he'll be OK, which is better than he was last season. Since offseason knee surgery and not participating in the grind of spring ball and training camp, his legs have been spry. Like Whitworth and 13 of his other mates, this is Crocker's third trip in four years to the playoffs and, he says, a much better finish to the regular season to get ready than the others.
"I feel really good. I'm speaking mainly from the defensive side of the ball but we're playing a lot better," Crocker said. "In '09 we were beat up and scratched our way into the playoffs and last year we were not playing at a high level at all going into Houston. We just get better and better. This isn't our best game, but we definitely played well the last eight games of the year. We didn't let teams run the ball, we made very little mistakes, and we've cut down explosive plays offenses make against us.
"To win seven of eight games, that's hard to do. It's not like we played teams that weren't good down the stretch. I think it will carry over."
Even a virtual outsider can sense it. Kicker Josh Brown has been here just 25 days, but he leads the Bengals with nine postseason games that include a Super Bowl appearance with Seattle.
"We've got a lot of healthy people, and they're young," Brown said. "We've got a lot of young muscles in here, and they're finding ways to get it done. And the defense is just absolutely out-of-their-minds good. They're really playing good ball, and they came up big for us tonight with the interception. We didn't have Andy in there. You could tell we were playing some other people and pulling back on some other guys, but you've got to play well no matter who is in there. You want to continue playing well into this and never take a day off. You can't take days off in the playoffs. The moment you do and get behind somebody, you're done."
The Bengals are thinking their defense won't let it get done.