Hobson's Choice: listing into '16 with '15's top plays

The NFL loves lists. NFL Network and NFL.com have more lists than the Bengals and Steelers have axes to grind.

In an attempt satisfy the fever-pitch appetite for NFL football ten days from training camp, we offer our top five plays from the Bengals' 2015 season. With one caveat.  In order to qualify, the play has to have two requirements. Obviously, it has to have a decisive voice in the game. But the play also has to have significant ramifications for how the Bengals must respond to the challenges of 2016.

So here's our ticket of the top five plays in 2015, along with a few honorable mentions down ballot:

1. BIG BEN CLOCKED: Third-year safety Shawn Williams saved his first NFL interception for the most opportune moment of his career in the AFC North showdown with the Steelers at Heinz Field on Nov. 1.

The 6-0 Bengals trailed the Steelers, 10-6, with 5:34 left in the game and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger about to put in the knife with one of his patented scrambles. But Williams made a wondrous, diving catch just before skidding out-of-bounds at the Steelers 45 when Big Ben tried to improvise into the teeth of a three-safety look.

The Steelers came out in a run formation with just one receiver and max protection with multiple tight ends. That's how Pittsburgh opened the game, which is why Williams started and not cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick as defensive coordinator Paul Guenther matched bulk with bulk.

The pick paved the way for 10 points and a 16-10 win that gave the Bengals an insurmountable 3.5-game lead in the AFC North with nine games left and basically gave them their fourth division crown under head coach Marvin Lewis.

It's that kind of heady, icy play that the Bengals expected from Williams when they drafted him in the third round out of Georgia and why they signed him to a four-year extension this spring in the wake of starting safety Reggie Nelson's departure in free agency. No more third safety. Williams and George Iloka are the starting safeties.

Since 2012 only Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman (22) has more interceptions than Nelson's 17 and six of them came against Big Ben. Williams has staked his claim with a very big one and he's looking to re-pay their confidence as he replaces the much admired Nelson. Cornerback Adam Jones said during the spring workouts he's been ready for a while.

2. THE GREENING OF BALTIMORE: After Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green wrecked his Ravens again on a career-best 227 yards in Baltimore, head coach John Harbaugh openly wondered if his team would ever cover Green before he retires.

A year after he beat them in the '14 opener on a 77-yard throw from Andy Dalton in the final five minutes, the Ravens certainly didn't cover Green back on Sept. 27, 2015 in a 28-24 come-from-behind win that Green clinched with a seven-yard grab from Dalton with 2:10 left.

But it was his stunning 80-yard TD with 6:37 left in the third quarter that sent a message to the rest of the league that the Bengals were in to something good. It came 12 seconds after the Ravens gave Cincinnati its first deficit of the season on a stunning 41-yard fumble TD return by linebacker C.J. Mosley off Elvis Dumervil's sack-and-strip of Dalton.

Dalton didn't blink. Green went in the slot avoiding the bump and Dalton had great time because the 5-9, 205-pound Giovani Bernard fended off a blitzing behemoth. That gave Dalton just enough time to pump a seed to Green outrunning safety Kendrick Lewis in a zone. Then Harbaugh watched Green run away from Lewis before running over cornerback Jimmy Smith at the 20.    

The win buried the Ravens at 0-3 and with Big Ben limping with a knee injury in Pittsburgh the Bengals were in front to stay in the AFC North.

It's the kind of dominant performance the Bengals are going to need from Green early in the 2016 season as their corps of young wide receivers adjust to the free-agent departures of starter Marvin Jones and slot man Mohamed Sanu.

3. TIPPING TYLER: It was easy to get lost back at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 11, 2011.  After the Bengals erupted for 20 straight points in the fourth quarter and overtime to take down the two-time NFC champion Seahawks, 27-24, and stay unbeaten at 5-0, you needed YouTube to catalogue the heroics.

Yet tight end Tyler Eifert's 25-yard diving finger-tip grab behind Seattle Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor  with a minute left in regulation to set up Mike Nugent's tying field goal at the gun not only defined his season but showed just how devastating the Bengals are with Eifert as a weapon down the seam.

Athletic enough to line up as a wide receiver on the outside and big enough to give defenses fits as a red-zone target in two tight end sets, Eifert is arguably Dalton's most important option while Green is his best in the passing game.

That's why Eifert's ankle injury that could take him out of the first few games (or none) is going to be heavily scrutinized. They need Eifert to play just as well, particularly with the loss of Jones and Sanu, and the Seattle win underscores it.

It will be recalled that Green's last catch against Seattle came midway through the second quarter while Eifert led all receivers with eight catches for 90 yards.

And it will also be recalled that the play just before Eifert's heroics jump-started that last drive on a 27-yard pass interference penalty with 1:25 left when Seattle simply couldn't keep up with Marvin Jones and got the ball out to the Seattle 45. The Bengals need a healthy Eifert down the middle and a threat opposite Green to emerge in 2016.

4. DUNLAP'S THEFT:  It was an uneasy time in Bengaldom even though its club was 10-3 and the 49ers were 4-9 entering the Dec. 20 game. A week before they had watched Dalton cut down in his finest season with a broken thumb that ended his season atop the AFC passer rankings.

They were out in San Francisco for Andy Dalton's first NFL start and they were trying to find their legs in their first game without their quarterback in his 77-game career.  Plus, they needed a win to keep their hopes alive for the AFC's top seed in a Monday night showdown in eight days in Denver.

And it wasn't going well. The Bengals were locked in a sleepy scoreless stalemate in the middle of the second quarter when beleaguered 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert converted a third-and-10 on a 12-yard throw to wide receiver Anquan Boldin when the Bengals allowed the 35-year-old Boldin to wriggle for the last six yards after the catch to the San Fran 32.

But the second effort cost him. Bengals sack leader, left end Carlos Dunlap, hustled after the play and wrenched the ball out of Boldin's hands before racing 21 yards the other way. Less than three minutes later with 5:16 left in the half, the Bengals had a 7-0 lead on running back Jeremy Hill's one-yard touchdown run courtesy of replay, underscoring just how much of a grind it was.

Dunlap's play loosened everyone up. McCarron settled down to finish a solid-no-frills-no-turnover game with a 192-yard effort on 71-percent passing and he got seven more points when linebacker Vontaze Burfict came up with a pick on a bobbled pass in the half's last minute to make it 21-0.

The play captured a couple of major reasons why the Bengals have made it to the playoffs the last five seasons and what they need to keep doing to make it six. In that stretch they're 25-15 on the road, which means they're packing defense and special teams to find different ways to win when it gets ugly. And it's usually nasty on the road.

Over the last 10 seasons they've generated the second most turnovers in the AFC while conjuring up the NFL's seventh -best takeaway-giveaway ratio at plus-18. And let the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense take a bow. They kept the scoreboard clean until McCarron and the offense got its act together for a classic ugly but necessary win worthy of a defense that has allowed the second fewest points in the league since 2012.

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Hello World. Adam Jones: no one is more electric with the ball in his hands.

5. ADAM POWER:  Seattle again. How could it not be? It has to be one of the five biggest wins in Bengals' regular-season history.

His 35-yard punt return helped set up one of the fourth-quarter touchdowns and was his longest of the season, but it was cornerback Adam Jones' 19-yard return in overtime that set up Nugent's winning field goal.

And here was, Jones nursing a groin injury, pleading to get on the field to return a punt after just playing corner in the first half

"I kept telling Darrin (Simmons) we'd break one," said Jones to his position coach.

Ah, defense and special teams. You have them in 2015 or 2016 or 1988 and you're going to win. The Bengals allowed just one of six third-down conversions in the fourth quarter and overtime and on third-and-eight in the OT Dunlap continued his harassment of a neophyte right tackle and it turned into a sack of Russell Wilson that backed up Seattle at its 14.

In a blink, Jones had the ball on his 43. In two blinks, a 12-yard throw to Eifert and a big run by Bernard, and it was over.

HONORABLE MENTION:

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Oct. 4:  The Bengals are wrestling with the Chiefs at PBS and are holding on to a 14-12 lead midway through the third quarter and face a third-and-11 from their 45. With Marvin Jones needing a breather after running a long incompletion, Brandon Tate takes his first snap of the season at wide receiver on his 28th birthday in a year he has only been rotating returning punts with Jones.

Against a big rush, Dalton gets away and races to the right sideline before he sees Tate breaking off his route and running past Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters when he sees Dalton in trouble. Dalton hits him on the dead run and Tate makes a diving, fingertip grab at the 8 before he alertly gets up and goes the rest of the way for a 55-yard TD to get the Bengals moving to a 36-21 win.

Tate is fighting for his roster life this training camp as the Bengals look at a host of inexperienced young receivers in response to the losses of Jones and Sanu. But whoever they are, they're going to need guys like Tate that know what they're doing and come in cold off the bench.

So maybe it's time once again to never count him out.

Sept. 20: The Bengals are clinging to a 17-13 lead with 11:50 left in the game against the Chargers at PBS. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, who has 24 fourth-quarter comebacks, faces a third-and-six from his 9.

Enter Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey. With the injured Burfict sidelined Rey is calling the signals and is trying to outfox Rivers, one of the best in the business at the line of scrimmage. Even though Rivers is in a confusing triple cadence, Rey holds his water. He and fellow nickel backer Emmanuel Lamur are lined up in an A gap blitz. But when Rey sees Rivers is at the point of no return, he makes a new call.

He and Lamur drop into coverage while the defensive line moves from its usual four-man look to three. That puts unblockable Geno Atkins over center Chris Watt with no help. Make that a first-year center and second-year NFL player working against a Pro Bowler who has already wrecked the game. Thanks to Rey, who doesn't allow Rivers time to get to the proper protection, Atkins and Dunlap meet at the quarterback to force an end-zone punt that sets up a TD for a 24-13 lead in what becomes a 24-19 victory.

Rey returned in the spring with a three-year contract and with the arrival of 13-year vet Karlos Dansby and the emergence of third-round pick Nick Vigil, the Bengals figure to have their deepest linebacker corps in years. With Burfict suspended for the first three games this year, Rey gives them ballast calling the shots that Burfict usually makes.

Jeremy Hill, here running away in Cleveland, had his two biggest games in the division.

Jan 3: The Bengals are trying to put away the Ravens in the regular-season finale, which would tie them for a franchise-best 12th win. They're holding a 14-9 lead early in the second half when Hill bursts out of a heavy formation for a 38-yard TD run on the way to a 24-16 victory.

Working behind emergency fullback Jake Fisher and an offensive line featuring three tackles, Hill knifes between left guard Clint Boling and left tackle Andrew Whitworth and like he did in his rookie year of 2014 he quickly goes north and south. He didn't do that as often. It took Hill all 16 games to get his first carry of the season longer than 20 yards, a feat he accomplished eight times as a rookie.

That's the Hill they need this season, especially with Eifert's status early in the year in doubt.

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