SAN DIEGO — Improvisation and resiliency produced quarterback Andy Dalton's six-yard diving touchdown run that won the game for the Bengals on Sunday and became the face of the rather unglamorous but resourceful and revealing 20-13 victory over the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
"We've probably played as effectively as you can play the last three games, but then you're going to have a game where everything doesn't just click," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We were missing plays by inches. This little thing here, this little thing there. Normally in those situations, you tank. This team didn't.
"When we had the opportunity, the offense had to score a touchdown, the special teams had to get a great kickoff, the defense had to get a great stop, and we were able to do that."
The Bengals were feeling good about this one because how many times have they gone on the road, particularly on the West Coast and in December, and not been able to overcome even the tiniest of adversities or great individual efforts?
This time they survived themselves and enigmatic Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to win their fourth straight and stay even with the Steelers for the final wild card spot at 7-5.
"The biggest thing the great teams do is keep winning the grind-out games and that's what we did," said wide receiver A.J. Green.
Despite its first three turnovers in four games and some ill-timed penalties, the offense still managed to go 55 yards on 14 plays in 7:42 to get the winning points. Despite allowing Rivers 280 yards and end both the half and game with terrifyingly easy two-minute drills, the defense bent but kept the foes out of the end zone for the second time in three games.
"It actually wasn't," Dalton said when asked if his run had been planned. "It was a screen that they had defended pretty well. I thought I was going to be able to throw it quick somewhere but I wasn't able to so I just found the lane and was able to get in."
He could have been talking about his overall play Sunday. Despite throwing a pick-six and overthrowing Green twice for touchdowns, Dalton used his brains and heart to negotiate a back alley to get the fifth fourth-quarter comeback victory of his career and first since last Nov. 29 at Paul Brown Stadium against Cleveland.
Dalton looked right, pumped right, saw he had nothing and sped for the alley just as rookie outside linebacker Melvin Ingram was nipping at his heels in the pocket.
"Not everything is going to go exactly how you planned; it's what you do whenever things break down," Dalton said. "It was a big play and we needed it at that point. It was just great to get a touchdown right there."
The defense could have said that on San Diego's last drive. Brilliant all day, it let Rivers off the hook with some soft coverage and when Malcom Floyd caught an easy 16-yarder in front of cornerback Terence Newman with 1:11 left, the Chargers were on the Bengals 17.
But the Bengals and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer responded.
On first down the first string pass-rushing front four made Rivers step up and he shotputted the ball out of bounds into the end zone going for Floyd.
On second down, Zimmer blitzed and made Rivers throw off his back foot in a hurry and overthrow wide receiver Danario Alexander in the end zone, but Alexander didn't have a chance draped by cornerback Leon Hall.
On third down, Zimmer showed blitz, backed off, and left end Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins worked a twist to get some heat on Rivers, who overthrew running back Ronnie Brown down the right sideline, well covered by safety Reggie Nelson.
On fourth down, Zimmer showed his enormous faith in his front four and just let them come on the biggest play of the game while the seven left fell into what looked like a matchup zone with Nelson helping Newman cover Floyd down the right side, but also being responsible for tight end Antonio Gates across the middle. Newman had great coverage on Floyd and when Rivers tried to squeeze it into the sideline to Floyd, Nelson was able to break on the underthrown ball and intercept it in the end zone.
"Zim put us in a great call," Nelson said. "We knew when we took the field for the last drive if we stopped them we'd win."
Why not have faith in that front four? Like Whitworth said after the game, they're playing as well as anyone in the league and it's not just four guys. It's also ends like Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry.
But Dunlap, the team's best outside pass rusher carried the day with two sacks and strips of Rivers, the last one with 3:54 left that set up the last field goal.
"This was his kind of game," said head coach Marvin Lewis, realizing that Rivers jacked it up 48 times and Dunlap agreed.
"Our defensive line looks forward to that; that's the kind of dynamic rushers we have," Dunlap said. "We're spreading the wealth. We don't have one dominant guy. I had the numbers today, but it just wasn't one guy."
If the D-line did it the unconventional way with just a half-sack from its two top sackers, Atkins and right end Michael Johnson, so did Green. The Chargers did a good job taking him from the outside and the long ball, but even though his longest catch was just 16 yards he went unflinchingly across the middle to make nine catches for 85 yards on 13 targets. He said he didn't go in the slot any more than usual, but Sunday his most effective plays were out of the slot and in close formations.
Green also overcame his own little adversity. On the winning drive, the Bengals had a first down from the Chargers 6, but got flagged for an illegal formation when Green didn't line up off the line with tackle Dennis Roland checking in as an eligible receiver.
"I don't mind working the middle. I don't care. That's what I'm trying to do, become a better receiver," Green said. "They don't let you go deep every play."
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins also did a little bit of improvisation on the biggest third down of the game. The third-and-five from the Chargers 15 with 5:42 left. Old friend Takeo Spikes came blitzing up the middle from his backer spot and was picked up by center Trevor Robinson and Hawkins adjusted as he strafed cornerback Antoine Cason running across the middle for nine yards.
"It looked like they brought a blitz," Hawkins said. "It was like a 'beat the man' route and Andy made a great throw and I came up with it."
But in the end, the last drive came courtesy of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis as he closed in on his third straight 100-yard game, and that did follow the script. The Chargers were without their three best run players in linebackers Donald Butler and Jarret Johnson, and safety Atari Bigby and the Bengals kept pounding it. BJGE went for 118 yards on 25 carries, making Lewis 34-2 when one of his runners carries it at least 25 times and 35-7 with a 100-yard rusher. The Law Firm is 3-0 in Cincinnati doing both. On that last drive he pounded it up the middle six times for 24 yards and had back-to-back seven-yard runs probing the perimeter behind right tackle Andre Smith.
Since Green-Ellis is a product of the Patriot Way, listening to him in December might not be a bad idea.
"That was good for us to get," BJGE said. "We had to overcome some adversity on the road, thousands of miles from home, overcome turnovers, overcome bad field position, we were backed up sometimes, but overcame that to win the game. That was the big thing to me, to have that toughness, to put it out on the road and everything going against us."
Defensive tackle Domata Peko felt the same thing in the other trench. Now with the offensive line taking control in the running game and the defensive line becoming a dominant force league-wide, it's becoming a heck of a lot easier to overcome the bad stuff.
"I heard Coach (Lewis) say we're a rising team and that's good to hear," Peko said. "Those are the teams that are dangerous in December. We haven't always been good in December and we're trying to change that around here. We just have to keep doing it one brick at a time and just keep focusing on one game at a time and we'll be all right."
Even when it all doesn't go right.