BALTIMORE, Md. _ M&T Bank Stadium now stands for Morgue and Tomb after A.J. Green and Andy Dalton got through with the Ravens home opener Sunday.
Green and Dalton. Dalton and Green. Ever since they arrived 1-2, 2-1 in the 2011 draft, they have been the face of the perennial playoff-bound Bengals and on Sunday in one of the NFL's most hostile environments they authored one of the most thrilling chapters of their own era.
Statistically, the 28-24 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens featured their greatest days in the NFL. Symbolically, they offered a lesson in resiliency and resourcefulness hard to match and with a 3-0 record, a three-game lead over the Ravens and Ben Roethlisberger in the MRI machine, the Bengals are the undisputed favorites in the AFC North.
While Green wrecked the Ravens on 227 yards and stunned them with two go-ahead TD catches in a span of 4:27 late in the game, Dalton sliced Baltimore's ballyhooed defensive strategy of all-out blitzes with a 122.3 passer rating that leaves him with a glittering 121 for the season.
That means he's hotter than New England's blistering Tom Brady and leads the AFC in passing. second in the NFL behind only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.
"We saw that from last year," Whitworth said. "They wanted to see if No. 14 and the receivers could beat them and this was a great game that showed that they can."
Dalton fittingly finished off his masterpiece staring at a first-and-seven from the Ravens 7 with 2:16 left and trailing, 24-21. He sent tight Tyler Eifert flanked wide right, but when he saw the Ravens loading up for another blitz, he changed the formation and changed the protection by calling Eifert back to the line of scrimmage.
Knowing everyone was getting one-on-one coverage, Dalton had his eye on Green coming out of the left slot against the man that followed him all day, cornerback Jimmy Smith, the guy that boxed him out in the end zone for an interception early in the third quarter.
"Jimmy Smith is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, and I knew we were going to go head to head today," Green said. "I knew he was going to make some plays. On the interception, he really made a great play. I know I need to do a better job trying to break up a play like that."
Green likes being in the slot. They can't jam him, he says, and when Smith gave him a free release, Smith was done down the seam and Dalton lofted it perfectly as Green ran under it to the left back pylon.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens in week 3 of the regular season 09/27/2015
And Eifert was there to help running back Giovani Bernard fend off blitzing inside backer C.J. Mosely.
"That's one of the things he doesn't get enough credit for. He changes things all the time," Whitworth said. "One of the things that has made this offense successful is Andy's ability to get us into the right play."
Green was Dalton's main man. Yes, he hit the other wide receiver, Marvin Jones, five times for 94 yards and his wondrous one-handed 31-yard catch set up the winner. And, yes, Bernard (23 yards) and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (19) had huge catches in the drive. But it was Green who dominated like a four-time-Pro-Bowl-$60-million- extension-man is supposed to dominate against man-to-man coverage.
It took a record day to pass the great Isaac Curtis into second place on the Bengals all-time list with 21 100-yard games. Chad Johnson's record 31 is next. The AFC receiving yardage list truly looks like a Pro Bowl with Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Baltimore's Steve Smith Sr., and Green running 1-2-3.
"When you're in a game like that, the great players step up and A.J. stepped up," said left end Carlos Dunlap.
But his greatest day, which was better than any receiving day in Bengals history except for Chad Johnson's 260, started out like it was going to be a long one. On back-to-back snaps in the first quarter he almost deflected an easy catch for an interception and covered up tackle eligible Jake Fisher for an illegal formation penalty.
"A.J. is so competitive," Dalton said. "I am so fortunate that we came here together. He is so talented, and I'm glad he is on our team. . .After he dropped the pass, I told him: 'From now on, I'm going to throw you the first pass of the day, you can drop that one, and we'll go from there.''"
But it was no laughing matter for Green, who felt he had to remind head coach Marvin Lewis he was good. Lewis reflected the enormous confidence they have in him and said, "Yeah, you're great."
Marvin Jones simply said, C'mon now."
Green said after it was over that he's his own worst critic. He takes the mistakes to heart "and I try as hard as I can.
"This isn't our first rodeo. We're not going to flinch, that's one of our mottos," Green said. "We just go out and run our offense."
And so they did. After Mosley gave them their first deficit of the season with 6:41 left in the third game when he rambled 41 yards with Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil's sack and strip of Dalton to make it 17-14, it took all of 12 seconds for a response.
"Cool, calm, collected. From Andy to all of us," said Marvin Jones. "We just had to make plays and we can do that. When you have that, that eliminates the fear and anxiety.
"They played man across the board and when you do that, you're susceptible for it not to be in your favor," Jones said. "They played man the whole fourth quarter. They tried to throw exotic blitzes on us to slow us down. But when they play man, you know what we have."
They have 'The Man.' Down, 17-14, Green was deployed in the slot and Dalton had great time because the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard was stoning a blitz. He gave Dalton just enough time before he got backed into him to unleash a beauty to Green racing past safety Kendrick Lewis in the slot. Green did the rest with hellacious run after catch, running away from Lewis and flat out running over Jimmy Smith at the 20.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said it was zone coverage with blitz pressure. But Bernard made sure the blitz didn't get there.
"I was in a slot position, so they couldn't jam me," Green said. "I knew I had a safety on me, and he gave me a big cushion. It was a great ball by Andy."
Great ball? Dalton took his first two sacks and most shots of the season with five hits and he kept getting up better than ever. His scramble on third-and-five from the seven where he deked the Pro Bowler Mosley at the five gave the Bengals their first touchdown. It was his scramble that began the last drive when he kept the play going long enough to find Bernard on the left sideline in the flat for a 23-yard gain.
At any point he could ask his critics, what do you think of me now? Instead, he just keeps getting his guys lined up in the right spot.
"We trust Andy. He's always at the facility studying. He gets us into the right play," Eifert said. "I don't know why people feel he's got anything to prove. We trust him and we know he's a great quarterback. We believe in him and that's what we expect him to do."
It's the first time the Bengals have beaten the Ravens four straight. It's the first time they've gone back-to-back at M&T since '04 and '05. In that '04 game, the Bengals racked up 24 fourth-quarter points. That was Comeback Carson Palmer's third fourth-quarter comeback. He had 10 in his first 66 starts. This was Dalton's 10th in his 67th start. And how about his? Dalton went 80 yards twice in 4:27 to finish.
"The thing with me about No. 14 is that every single season I see him become better at something else," Whitworth said. "This year it's been leadership and taking control. He's doing a great job with it. If he continues to lead us that way, there's plenty of talent on this side of the football we can be really good."