After the longest game in Bengals history, T.J. Houshmandzadeh looked back to what now seems like 1968 and told Chad Ocho Cinco, "If we had this defense the last couple of years, we could have had at least a Super Bowl now. For real."
At 1-8-1, the Bengals aren't going to be able to get off the interstate of punch lines. And Houshmandzadeh's "It feels like a loss because we were winning the entire game" summed up a loser-quiet locker room.
But nobody can joke about an emerging young defense that held the fourth highest scoring team in the NFL, quarterback Donovan McNabb's Eagles, to one touchdown in the 13-13 curiosity Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals, who came into the game next to last in the NFL on third down, stifled Philadelphia on 15 of 18 third-down tries after two games they gave up a total of 15 third-down conversions. They forced four turnovers with cornerback Johnathan Joseph coming up with his first interception of the season, WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson coming up with his first career NFL interception in his 19th game, and safety Chris Crocker coming up with his first as a Bengal in his first game from scrimmage in place of the injured Chinedum Ndukwe.
And they did it with the bench. Crocker, signed on Oct. 30, for Ndukwe. Johnson playing in place of the injured Keith Rivers. Right end Frostee Rucker coming up with a big fumble recovery and a solid game for injured Antwan Odom.
Plus, they did it with old standbys they need more from. Finally playing with a lead, left end Robert Geathers was able to cause some havoc. His sack and strip of McNabb at the Eagles 7 got the scoring going and he added two other quarterback hits, a tip at the line, and a tackle for loss.
"It would be a little more special when the outcome is absolute (but) it's a bit anti-climatic," said middle linebacker Dhani Jones, the former Eagle who had five tackles and a big third-down pass defensed on Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook late in regulation. "It shows time well spent getting together (studying). Time well spent practicing. Time well spent getting to know each other and how the next person plays."
While Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson gets weekly accolades, what about the job first-year coordinator Mike Zimmer has done in Cincinnati? The stats aren't pretty, but his unit almost always gives this beleaguered offence a chance to win. With McNabb throwing a career-high 58 passes, Crocker estimated the Bengals blitzed on half of them.
"We're playing for our lives," said Crocker, who got a new life abut 10 days after the Dolphins cut him last month. "We were aggressive. There was a lot of mixing it up. We came after him a lot. We covered a little bit, but we came after him a lot."
The Bengals gave up 339 yards passing, but McNabb threw 30 incompletions on a day the Eagles could manage just 3.8 yards on 18 rushes. Crocker should know how Zimmer did it. He played for him last year in Atlanta, but even though he knows a lot of the defense, he never expected to play as much as he did.
"You come to a new team halfway through the season and you figure you play special teams and maybe some nickel," Crocker said. "It's about studying and being patient. But I never thought I'd play this much today."
But with Dexter Jackson already out for the year and Ndukwe walking to the locker room with a foot injury with about eight minutes left in the first quarter, there was no choice but to call on Crocker for his first play from scrimmage on a third-and-nine. McNabb threw at him and Crocker made the play on wide receiver Jason Avant.
Not a bad guy to go to. Crocker, a third-round draft pick of the Browns out of Marshall in 2003, was in his 82nd game and that was his 30th career pass defensed. He was on his way to four tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and another hit on the quarterback as he eased into Zimmer's system playing both safety spots while also working in the nickel pass defense.
"I don't think Donovan knew who was who," Crocker said. "Sometimes I'm the free, sometimes I'm the strong, sometimes I'm the nickel. It makes it tough on the quarterback when he can't identify. It makes him get rid of the ball faster."
Which is what happened on Crocker's interception and McNabb's third of the game with 3:43 left in the third quarter and the Bengals protecting a 13-10 lead. On third-and-five, the Bengals moved around Crocker so he was covering tight end L.J. Smith down the middle at the Bengals 22.
"We knew he was going to get rid of the ball with pressure," Crocker said of the blitz that led to his eighth career interception. "We gave him a different look. The coaches moved me around a lot. It was textbook. We knew he was going to get rid of the ball. I got my head around and I got my hands on the ball."
As good as the defense was, the talk was of the play that wasn't made. Joseph shook his head as he talked about his crushing drop in overtime with 4:30 left. McNabb threw him a ball right at the Philly 40 and it bounced off his hands as he jumped slightly.
"I took my eyes off it at the last minute; didn't reel it in," Joseph said. "I had a chance to give us great field position. The safety and I were talking before the play and exactly what we talked about happened. I had a chance to make a play and the ball just went through my hands."
The safety drove tight on the receiver, rookie wideout DeSean Jackson, and Joseph stayed over the top. Asked if it is tougher to catch a ball right at him, Joseph said, "Somewhat because I guess you're thinking it's going to be easy to make because it's right at you. But you have to do the same thing when you make a tough one: look the ball in."
Joseph's pick ended the first half, which seemed like it was on Tuesday by the time the three-hour, 46-minute marathon ended. McNabb threw a pass behind wide receiver Kevin Curtis that bounced off his shoulder pads and Joseph looked it in.
"We kept him guessing," Joseph said of McNabb. "We showed him a lot of disguises. He couldn't get that feel for what we were doing. He was off-balance a little bit because he couldn't get his reads that he wanted because he was thinking one coverage and we were showing him another one."
Johnson called it "a total defensive effort," and he was a big part of it. Not only did the street free agent get the pick, he stayed at home when Jackson lined up as the quarterback and when he handed off to running back Brian Westbrook on a reverse, Johnson buried him for a three-yard loss. He also stayed at home on the interception, a huge play in which he dropped into the red zone in zone coverage in a 3-3 game with 1:26 left in the half.
"He didn't read me, I read him," said Johnson after his leap. "I'm 6-5. I didn't have to jump very high. It wasn't LeBron James."
But his 35-yard return was Devin Hesterish and was as big as the pick because it took the Bengals just four plays and 40 or so seconds to score for a 10-3 halftime lead.
"We're getting a little more comfortable in there," Rucker said. "We've got guys coming in and playing up-tempo, making plays, hungry. We know second and third downs are important and we're doing a way better job on that. It feels good to make plays and get off the field. I can't say we did anything special. We did what we had to do."
Last week, Crocker called this the best 1-8 team he'd ever seen.
Now it's the best 1-8-1 team?
"That's crazy; a tie," he said. "Sometimes I don't think we believe we can get over that hump," Crocker said. "Today I think we really showed we're the best 1-8 team I've ever seen. The guys really have to believe when we get in a tie ballgame and we get the ball, we gave to finish. I just think today is a good example. Just going into next week. Hey, we're a good team, regardless of the record. We didn't win, but today is a good learning experience."