ATLANTA - As Paul Brown would say after a win by his Baby Bengals, "How about that, sports fans?"
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, brilliant all day, hit sliding wide receiver A.J. Green in the right corner of the end zone with seven seconds left Sunday for a 13-yard touchdown pass that gave them a surreal 37-36 victory over the Falcons and capped a soul-searching 16-play drive in a confounding 4:08.
He hit 29 of 41 passes for 337 yards and with Green held to three catches for 62 yards heading into that last drive, he teamed up on that last drive with wide receiver Tyler Boyd as Boyd finished with a career-high 11 catches for 100 yards.
But when the Bengals reached the Falcons 35, left tackle Cordy Glenn gave up two straight pressures working against Vic Beasley Jr. That set up a fourth-and-eight and he got it throwing to who else? Boyd boxing out Marcus Trufant.
But Glenn was then called for hands to the face and the Bengals faced a fourth-and-six and then Boyd, of course, converted at the 13.
Facing third-and-seven and third-and-13, the Bengals needed one stop in Sunday's shootout but the defense couldn't come up with it and allowed Matt Bryant's 32-yard field goal with 4:15 left that gave Atlanta a 36-31 lead.
As the Falcons converted 11 of their first 15 third-down tries, shoddy tackling on someone named Austin Hooper allowed them to cash the third-and-13 and the sheer brilliance of wide receiver Julio Jones got the third-and-seven. Two of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan wide receivers, Jones and Mohamed Sanu went over 100 yards.
Cornerback Tony McRae blocked Bryant's 37-yarder after right end Carl Lawson got his second sack of the day, but he was clearly offsides.
The Bengals worked that last drive without their best cover cornerback, the injured William Jackson, and turned to McRae in the slot.
Dalton was brilliant. He hit 24 of his first 32 passes for 292 yards and with wide receiver Green held to three catches for 62 yards heading into that last drive, he teamed up on that last drive with Boyd.
But Glenn was then called for hands to the face and the Bengals faced a fourth-and-six and then Boyd, of course, converted at the 13 on a slant to set up Green.
The Bengals took a crushing blow with about ten minutes left in the game when Dalton made a great throw and Green made an even better catch in the corner of the end zone to give them the lead.
But the points were taken off the board when right tackle Bobby Hart was called for hands to the face. Then on third-and-five from the Falcons 9 with 8:21 left, end Takk McKinley got his third sack of the game when he bull-rushed Hart back into Dalton. The Bengals survived a fumble loss that got overturned on review and they had to settle for Randy Bullock's 36-yard field goal that cut Atlanta's lead to 33-31 on Cincinnati's first points of the second half.
The Bengals offense, so good in the first half when they scored touchdowns on all four drives, went cold in the third quarter and got blanked as they clung to a 28-27 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The dreaded tipped ball surfaced late in the third quarter when tight end Tyler Kroft let a ball go off his hands and safety Damontae Kazee corralled it to set up the Falcons 46. Dalton's last five interceptions dating back to last week in Carolina haven't been his fault.
More anarchy. Lawson then registered his first sack (and strip that the Falcons recovered) of the season, but was called for roughing Ryan.
You can't let Ryan off the hook like that and he made them pay. He converted his ninth third down in 12 tries when wide receiver Julio Jones had easy availability between middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson and safety Jessie Bates for 12 yards. Then Falcons rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley got wide open when he double-moved cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a 30-yard touchdown play that gave Atlanta a 33-28 lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Leading 28-27 the Bengals had a shot to add to it early in the third quarter. They got another huge third-down catch from Boyd (for 13 yards) and an acrobatic diving 13-yard sideline catch by revived wide receiver John Ross. And running back Giovani Bernard, immense all day, rattled off 14 more on a sweep right.
But a third down sack (McKinley working on Hart) took them out of field-goal range.
The Bengals had to endure a horrific start to the second half when tight end Tyler Eifert suffered a gruesome right ankle injury and as he was carted off with 50 seconds gone in the third quarter, it appeared as if he had suffered his third straight season-ending injury. His devastated teammates took a knee during a heart-breaking 10-minute gap. It happened on his fourth catch of the game and he had scored his first TD of the season earlier in the day.
Then when play finally resumed on third down, the Bengals allowed their first sack of the game. Then on the next snap the first punt of the game was taken off the foot of Kevin Huber by safety Keith Tandy at the Bengals.
But the Bengals' Pro Bowl sackers stepped up. Tackle Geno Atkins, and then on third down, left end Carlos Dunlap delivered sacks to force a chip shot-field goal that cut the Bengals' lead to 28-27.
The Red Rifle went shot-for-shot with Matty Ice in Sunday's first half that was as shoot-out advertised with no punts when Dalton hit 14 of 16 passes for 211 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating to stake the Bengals to a 28-24 half-time lead.
Dalton had to fire because Ryan converted eight of nine third downs on his way to 18 of 24 passing for 218 yards and a 130.8 rating. And that last third down on third-and-four for 13 yards to the alert Jones going out-of-bounds with nine seconds left in the half allowed Matt Bryant to kick a 55-yarder to end it. It was the 13th time in the last 20 games the Bengals allowed points in the final two minutes of the half.
But the Falcons got the ball back with 44 seconds only after the Bengals finished off a 4-for-4 first half when Bernard scored his second touchdown of the game on a one-yard run. It was Bernard (three catches for 30 yards and six runs for 26 in the half) that set it up when he rambled for 14 yards to the 1 when Dalton safety-valved it to him against the rush.
That drive went like all the rest with Dalton scalding Atlanta's deep zone underneath. Green and Boyd picked up first downs on slants and Eifert got nine more as three Bengals had at least three catches and none were by Green.
After a pre-game chat with Bengals all-time leading receiver Chad Johnson, the embattled Ross got loose out of the slot and no one covered him for a 39-yard TD that Bengals a 21-14 lead with 8:11 left in the second quarter.
Ross appeared to suffer some kind of groin injury as he reached for his upper leg even before he finished off the play.
For the second time in the half Atlanta tied it, this time with 2:55 left when rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley got inside on cornerback William Jackson on a skinny post for an 11-yard touchdown. It came on, what else? Third down. It was the seventh time on eight third-down tries the Falcons gouged the NFL's third-down defense.
It was fitting. It was Sanu's 10-yard catch on third-and-seven that kept the drive going when cornerback Darqueze Dennard blitzed off the slot and Ryan found Sanu in the vacated area. On the next snap, Ryan went play-action and hit Sanu for 36 more when he got between Jackson and safety Jessie Bates.
The Falcons tied it at 14 early in the second quarter when their defense stumbled on their twin Achilles', third downs and the run. Ryan stepped up in the pocket on third-and-five to avoid the ends and squeezed it into old friend Mohamed Sanu over the middle. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith did most of the rest before Ryan took advantage of a blown coverage and hit wide-open tight end Logan Paulsen in the end zone for his first touchdown of the season.
After Ryan hit Julio Jones on one of those mind-numbing third-and-longs (24 yards from his own 12 with Jones' marvelous snatch-and-pull over cornerback William Jackson), the Bengals got what amounted to a turnover with their third fourth-down stop of the year courtesy of defensive tackle Geno Atkins' sack at the Bengals 49 on fourth-and-five.
It was Atkins' fourth sack of the season, putting him back on pace for a career-high and Bengals-best 16.
That turned into a short-field touchdown in the Bernard show. He converted a third-and-two blasting up and middle and transformed a third-and-6 on a flare in the right flat with everyone in the world out in front blocking for his 17-yard pickup. After Green wiped out cornerback Robert Alford on wide receiver Boyd's nine-yard gain out of the other flat, Bernard schooled Alford on a 10-yard run for a touchdown. Bernard got jammed up at the line and broke it outside to the left and beat Alford to the pylon. That gave the Bengals a 14-7 lead with 12 seconds left in a first quarter after Dalton hit six of his first eight passes for 93 yards.
The Bengals' defensive woes on third down were well documented coming into Sunday, but the Falcons were nearly as bad and they gave up a big one on the first drive. After a false start on right tackle Bobby Hart ballooned a third-and-short to third-and-seven, Dalton hit Green on a 38-yard beauty out of the slot and over his shoulder flaring to the right side for the first pass completed pass against the Falcons over 20 yards in the air this season.
Dalton did the rest, rolling out on a play-action and hitting wide receiver Boyd over the middle for 11 yards and then hitting tight end Tyler Eifert all alone down the seam for a 15-yarder and Eifert's first touchdown of the season.
Forget about the Bengals defense trying to stop the pass. On Sunday' first drive the Falcons pounded the Bengals in the running game, capped by running back Ito Smith's first NFL touchdown on a walk-thru seven-yard run that gave Atlanta a 7-0 lead just 4:40 into the game.
Smith ran behind a simple power play behind left guard Wes Schweitzer and tight end Austin Hooper and no one got off their block until WILL linebacker Jordan Evans missed the tackle. An opening kick return to midfield didn't help.