Andy Dalton made the right call on his last play of Sunday's game.
Fourth and a very long one from the end zone. 1:01 left in the game. Bengals down, 24-20, and the season hinging on the next snap. A TD and the Bengals sweep the Ravens and control the division. A stop and the Bengals slide to .500 with three straight losses to the AFC elite.
All or nothing.
They got it all when quarterback Andy Dalton checked to his own number against one of the NFL's saltiest defenses and bulled in for the winning touchdown behind rookie center Russell Bodine with help from a host of others.
"On the one-yard line. Our guys against theirs. Our guys fought hard and were able to push enough," said Dalton, summing up Sunday's victory over a Ravens team that had muscled to the top of the North with the NFL's stingiest red zone defense.
Dalton had talked it over with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and Jackson told him if the sneak was there, take it. The Bengals took out their big goal-line personnel and spread the field with four receivers. The original call was pass, but if the Ravens responded to the spread with spread personnel of their own and played coverage, Dalton was looking for the sneak.
"It was a call I made. We had it schemed up right with look that we had. Hue talked about it," Dalton said. "If there was a chance to get it in, sneak it. So we got a good look. The guys up front did a good job with the push. We had something else on…We were able to get exactly the look we wanted to get."
Jackson stayed true to his commitment to the run. On first-and-six with the season on the line and running back Giovani Bernard nursing a hip injury, the Bengals gave it to Hill three times and he barreled for five yards on the first two carries before he did remarkably well to lose only a half-yard in the clutches of the relentless Haloti Ngata on third down.
"We spread them out; we took our goal-line (personnel) out of the game. We knew they would match with us," Hill said. "So we knew it would be easy to get the quarterback sneak. There was a bubble there. I think if they had stuffed the box, Andy would have passed it."
Dalton ducked behind Bodine and right guard Mike Pollak and pushed. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth fell back to help steer him in and Hill got in the final push from behind.
Truly a team effort as guys like left guard Clint Boling and right tackle Andre Smith got up from the bottom of the pile.
"Everyone was in the end zone," Hill said.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh wasn't as impressed. Asked if he thought his team had him stopped long enough to win, Harbaugh said, "They could have called forward progress stopped, yes, they could have."
A gutsy call. Dalton really earned that eighth fourth-quarter comeback victory on his 12th game winning drive.
A LITTLE HELP: Dalton and Greg Little, his newest wide receiver, have played just two games and they are already bantering and hooking up for big plays.
While Little's two former teams prepared to whale away at each other before the Browns beat the Raiders in Cleveland, he made huge catches to set up the Bengals' first and winning touchdowns in Sunday's 27-24 victory over the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
With the defensive backs playing way off his deep curl route to the right pylon on third-and-14 and Dalton standing bravely in the pocket, Little came back to the ball for a 21-yard catch on the 1 and just barely missed getting into the end zone against safety Darian Stewart to set up Dalton's first touchdown sneak five minutes into the game.
"I only wish I had got in," Little said. "It's funny. After that play (Dalton) said to me, 'You owe me,' and I said, 'Yeah I do. Throw it to me again and I'll make it.'"
Then on third-and-three from the Ravens 15 and the Bengals leading, 17-14, early in the fourth quarter, Little had two steps on his man on a go route to the right corner and Dalton overthrew him.
'I came back to him on that and told him, 'You owe me two,'" Little said with a laugh. "It's all good. It's a great team to be around."
Little needed his own little bounce back because that winning drive started when he dropped a short crossing route. But he was there a few minutes later on another third down, third-and-two to be exact, from the Ravens 19.
They used his versatility in the slot and Dalton hit him with his last pass of the day, a 13-yarder underneath the wash that set up the final sequence.
"It was a play where we have guys running deep on the outside and the guys in the slot run to the flat," Little said. "We knew they would play off because we had seen that all game. They sunk back in coverage, and I was able to get the ball in my hands and make a play."
In the wake of Marvin Jones' season-ending ankle surgery, Little emerged from a Tuesday workout on Oct. 14 and signed on after two surprising releases earlier this year, from the Browns in May and the Raiders in August. Two weeks removed from the couch, he helped lead the Bengals back into first place.
"He's been great," Dalton said. "He's a guy that fits right in with this group."
After seven weeks on the street, Little knows he's still working his body back into football shape. He comes back at night to PBS after practice and runs 1.5 miles on the treadmill.
"Coach Marvin has been putting me on the look squad just to get my legs up under me," Little said. "I've been pushing the envelope early in the week…getting into the sauna…the cold tub…my goal is 1,000 crunches (situps), but I never get to it."
But it's the thought that counts. The 2011 draft isn't so long ago. Lewis remembers the name on the board.
"When Greg came out of North Carolina, we really felt like he was a talent," Lewis said. "When you sit on your couch for a little bit, man, you come to the realization. This guy has really come in here and hit the ground running. He was here at 10 o'clock on Thursday night this week. This guy's in here and just trying to get his career back going. He's got great ability.
'As we say, when you come here, you have a clean slate. We're going to take you for what you do around here day in and day out, play in and play out. So I'm glad for him."
Little feels the love and he's responding.
"They've really allowed me to come in and be myself. I haven't had to live inside of a box at all. This team has been very welcoming in the locker room as well. Very challenging. That's what I like about this team. They have guys that are going to challenge you throughout the week to make plays. I think that's what is helping everyone get better."
DEJA PHEW: For a few quick, sickening moments, it looked like Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. had done it to the Bengals again.
In Baltimore on Opening Day he briefly put the Ravens ahead with 5:46 left in the game on an 80-yard touchdown catch before A.J. Green's 77-yard TD catch from Dalton less than a minute later won it.
On Sunday, with the Bengals protecting a 27-24 lead with 47 seconds left on a third-and-10 from the Ravens 20, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco uncorked a bomb to Smith and the 5-8 Smith leaped in front of 6-4 safety George Iloka to catch it at about the 30 and with Iloka on the ground he took off for a touchdown.
Only this time there was a flag lying near Iloka and it was offensive pass interference on Smith, that rarest of calls before the NFL made it a point of emphasis this season.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, a member of the league's competition committee, wasn't quite sure when asked if that call would have been made last year.
According to NFL stats, that was only the second offensive PI on the Ravens this season, both against Smith.
"I didn't see it. Hopefully," Lewis said with a laugh. "Steve is very good at that. He's exceptional at that. He has a way of separating himself when the two guys are even. He's a strong catch. He's a rare, rare player that way."
Iloka saw it all the way.
"Damn good call. I'm bigger than him. He pushed me off," Iloka said. "He can't out jump me for it. He had both hands on my chest. He knocked me off and I thought it was a great call…"
Lewis praised his defensive backs for holding down the explosive plays of Smith Sr. and the other starting wide receiver, Torrey Smith. The Ravens came into the game third in the NFL with 32 completions of 25 yards or more, but on Sunday they had just one and it was to fullback Lorenzo Taliaferro on a five-yard flip over the middle. The Bengals blanked Torrey Smith on just two targets and Steve Smith had three catches for just 35 yards. No wide out had a catch longer than 19 yards.
"We were in Cover Two and the thing that (stinks) about Cover Two late in a game is if they run four verticals and you have two deep safeties," Iloka said of the last play. "It's cool if they throw the ball on time, you can break either way. But if they stretch it, it's like damned if you don't and damned if you do. You have to pick one. The guy was open up the seam. I saw the quarterback look that way and he turned the other way."
Iloka said the coverage in Baltimore was Cover Three, a similar concept.
"The same thing. When you take them on, guys usually get open. That's the negative about it," Iloka said. "He put his hands on my chest, knocked me off, and the ref made a good call and we got the win.
"I had time to look back, saw the ball, was waiting for a jump ball. He didn't allow me to jump. He pushed me. As much as they call defensive pass interference that was a great call in my opinion."
It didn't go over so well with a curt Harbaugh.
"I'm not allowed to answer that question," he said.
Steve Smith went the other route.
"Ultimately you hope you don't allow plays like that to dictate the determination of a win or loss," Smith said. "So, it happens. I'm not disappointed, not upset, not frustrated, just exhausted and looking forward to the opportunity to play next week."
SLANTS AND SCREENS:
The old Geno Atkins rustled Sunday.
The Bengals' two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle got his first full sack since Halloween, the night he tore his ACL in Miami. Five days from the anniversary, Atkins played his best game of the season. Included in his four tackles (he had seven coming into the game), was another tackle for a loss. He also slapped the ball out of Flacco's hands before Flacco fell on it on a first-and-10 from the Bengals 34 late in the second quarter.
The Ravens had been rolling on two straights snaps for 25 yards, a Steve Smith 13-yard catch that converted a third-and-seven and a Justin Forsett 12-yard run. But Atkins' forced fumble put the Ravens off schedule and three snaps later they had to settle for Justin Tucker's 50-yard field goal with 1:02 left in the first half as the Bengals held on to a 7-6 lead going into halftime….
The seemingly hourly A.J. Green update: he'll try to practice Wednesday and he expects to play against Jacksonville next Sunday at PBS. But he also he said after the game he's only 80 percent. The Bengals want to get him as close to 100 percent as they can.
"I was at 40 percent last week and I feel about 80 percent today. I haven't had any soreness after I've worked out," Green said. "(The doctors) say it's day-to-day. I may not be at 100 percent, but if I can be at 80 percent, I'll play at a high level." ….
The Bengals were extremely intent on running the ball against Baltimore to slow down its red-hot pass rush. There were signs around the locker room with pictures of running backs to drive the point home and while they only averaged 3.3 yards, it was good enough to keep the Ravens at bay with two sacks and three quarterback hits after two games they combined for 10 sacks and 24 hits. They outrushed the Ravens, 111 -107, no mean feat since the Ravens were seventh in rushing and seventh against the rush…
The Bengals muscle wasn't only evident on short-yardage and goal-line. The Ravens lost cornerback Jimmy Smith to a leg injury on the first series and wide receiver Torrey Smith came back into the game after he was checked for a concussion and finished with no catches. Left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele were off and on the field with injuries.
Bernard and right guard Kevin Zeitler (calf) left in the second half, but they didn't seem to have significant injuries. It looked like Zeitler re-aggravated the injury that kept him out a month earlier in the season.