For all but 4:34 of Sunday's 70 minutes, the Bengals defense did what they wanted to do in Philadelphia during a grueling afternoon that ended 23-23.
Three sacks. Two interceptions. They rattled Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz early with a first-series turnover as their defensive line exerted its best pressure of the season during the rest of the game. Yes, running back Miles Sanders nicked them for 5.3 yards per carry and tight end Zach Ertz hit them with a big one. But it was field goals instead of touchdowns.
Except for that dastardly 4:34.
"Their game plan was to get the ball out quick, make us run sideline to sideline, so that they could try to take those shots downfield," said Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap. "That's what I got from the whole thing. They couldn't run the ball on us, so they made quick throws to get, you know, short dinks and dunks for their run game. That was their game plan. And, you know, bend but don't break."
In the final 1:29 of the first half, the Bengals hooked a kickoff out of bounds and Wentz used a secondary snafu to convert a third-and-eight into a wide-open touchdown pass with 16 seconds left to give Philly a gift 13-10 halftime lead.
Then when the Bengals went up seven with 3:05 left in the game, Wentz, without his best wide receiver DeSean Jackson, out with a hamstring, and without one of his dangerous tight ends, Dallas Goedert, whom had exited early in the afternoon, started throwing to someone named John Hightower, a fifth-round wide receiver who came into the game with one catch. Hightower drew pass interference penalties on cornerbacks William Jackson III and Darius Phillips for a total of 29 yards before he caught a ball for 11 yards.
"I can't speak to what the [defensive backs] were thinking on those," said head coach Zac Taylor. "I know one of them came on a double move and wheel route on their sideline. Sometimes when you put your eyes back on the quarterback and feel that, you give a little tug. We'll have to go back and see them."
Wentz did the rest.
He scrambled up the middle to convert one third down, flipped a pass underneath to convert another to Greg Ward, the unknown wide receiver whom caught the TD. And then with 21 seconds left, Wentz wriggled away from Dunlap on the Bengals left end and when he raced around the left edge right end Sam Hubbard nearly caught him. But Wentz ran out of his diving tackle for the tying seven-yard TD run.
But Dunlap's defensive line came so close. He was terrific with a team-leading nine tackles, one of them for a loss, and a tipped pass. And on that last play, Dunlap backed up Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson into Wentz, but Wentz stepped underneath with what appeared to be the aid of Johnson grabbing at Dunlap.
And Dunlap appeared to make the play of the game. As Jake Elliott lined up a 59-yard field goal at the end of overtime, Dunlap seemed to make the Eagles false start and Philly promptly conceded with a punt.
"I put pressure on the quarterback and tried to reach for him," Dunlap said of the tying TD, "and there was some restriction while I was reaching for him and he made a better than we did for his team. I've got to make that regardless. He made a great play."
Hubbard had a clutch third-down sack that forced a field goal and hit Wentz another time. Edge rusher Carl Lawson had the third two-sack game of his career and torture a once elite tackle named Jason Peters.
"They dinked and dunked, kind of quick throws to wear down and slow down and tire down the rush," Dunlap said. "They thought that we were going to quit, and we've got some dogs on the D-line. We weren't tapping out and we weren't quitting."
Dunlap indicated the coaches had made some kind of change to unleash the defensive line during the week after they had just two sacks in the first two games.
"I think this game plan played to our strengths as a D-line, and you got the results," Dunlap said. "I think that's what it was, nothing else. You've seen my work ethic, you've seen how I prepared. I prepared the same this week that I prepared every week, and this time we just got a string of plays that favored us and for whatever reason, the Eagles decided they wanted to test me. This is what you're going to get."
Miles Sanders, the Philly running back, thought he saw that, too. The Bengals weren't looking to take any chances and were putting it on their best rushers, their bread-and-butter.
"As far as protection wise, they didn't bring all the exotic looks that they were doing these last two weeks and previous years," Sanders said. "They like to blitz off the edge. They were bringing one guy on one side and we were sliding to him and they had another guy on the left, so I am keeping my eyes on both sides just in case. They just like to disguise a lot of stuff and they didn't really do too much."
The D-line has been beleaguered. Decimated at tackle. On Sunday they had three tackles going into the game with barely a handful of NFL games combined. Veteran Mike Daniels (groin) didn't practice all week but tried to play. Dunlap thinks Sunday's game can lift the group.
"I mean, Carl Lawson goes out there and pretty much gets four sacks, but he pretty much could have had the day," Dunlap said. "And you know, Sam, with his two or three and my great pressures. It's going to come, as long as we just keep coming together, it's going to be a force to reckon with."
But Dunlap doesn't want to give away any clues after coming so close.
"I'm not going to get into the game plan. The coach leaned on the D-line and the D-line did what they had to do," Dunlap said. "We just didn't close it out. We'll leave it at that."