A.J. Green (18) had his way with the Texans defensive backs.
HOUSTON - For the second straight week the Bengals' stars grabbed a hostile environment by the scruff of the neck Sunday and willed their way to an utterly necessary victory in the demolition derby that has become the AFC North when they swapped paint with the Texans in a 22-13 victory at something called NRG Stadium to stay in the lead at 7-3-1.
Andy Dalton weathered The Homecoming to steer his team through a 39:10 time of possession, the most on the road in regulation since the second game of the Marvin Lewis administration in 2003. While both trenches flexed their muscles, the 43-35 run-pass ratio greased his quick, flawless start, and the usually button-down Dalton took time to celebrate. On his father's birthday, he gave Greg Dalton the game jersey and signed it with the date and score.
He could have made a list:
A.J. Green dominated a near helpless secondary with a dozen catches.
The Bengals' well-heeled defensive front outplayed the Houston front boasting NFL MVP J.J. Watt.
The Bengals' grizzled, lockdown veterans in the secondary sent neophyte quarterback Ryan Mallett into a 49.2 passer rating funk by yielding The Arm just 4.2 yards per attempt. How good was said secondary? Mallet threw at the great Andre Johnson 12 times and completed just three passes for 36 yards.
Word surfaced a few hours after the game that Mallett may have suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle when he aggravated it in pregame warmups.
"To play one game on the road, let alone three, is tough," Green said. "To come up with two already, I think we're on a great track."
It will be recalled this hasn't been a good place for their big names. The last time they were here, in the 2012 Wild Card Game, Dalton couldn't hook up with Green in the end zone as the clock ticked under four minutes in a 19-13 loss to the Texans in a game their defensive stalwarts got run on for 158 yards.
Whether it was overthrown or Green slowed down, Sunday went a ways in burnishing their crunch-time credentials. The defense not only shut down torrid rookie running back Alfred Blue on 2.9 yards per, they purged the demons of Houston's zone-blocking nightmare and dumped him for a safety
"This team's robbed us probably in seasons where we
felt we were better than them, had to come to their place and didn't play as well and didn't get a chance to go on in the playoffs," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "If this was a personal game to us to prove we wanted it more and we want an opportunity to go to the postseason more and this was one more step towards it."
If 10 victories are the magic number for the playoffs, then they're in a best of five throttling to the Dec. 28 finish in Pittsburgh against four teams with winning records.
The Kings Island Bengals have roller-coastered from the depths to back-to-back road victories no one thought they could pull off and are still on top of the North as they head next week to Tampa. It's the final game of what was supposed to be a death march but has turned into a journey of self-discovery.
"We're playing with a little bit of a swagger and confidence. We're trying to get after it instead of just letting the game happen,' said Whitworth in a locker room that emptied quickly, like a job site. "The Cleveland (loss) really showed that. We felt like we were prepared for that game. We just went out there and kind of waited for something to happen for us instead of coming in with that confidence and swagger and that zip on the ball and running crisp routes and getting powerful running.
"You have to make them. I think this team has finally taken that step,' Whitworth said. "If we want our best, we have to make it. We can't wait for it to fall into our hands."
Green's hands were again at the center of it. After taking over last week's game in New Orleans in the fourth quarter with a couple of big roundhouse plays to finish with 127 yards on six catches, Green confounded the Houston defensive backs with a series of jabs and body blows on his 12 catches.
In the Bengals' two touchdown drives, Green caught slants and back-shoulder lobs to convert three third downs, two in the red zone, on his way to 121 yards. In the first half he did it against a soft man-to-man that evolved into double coverage in the second half. Even Green seemed amazed he was still getting open.
"In the second half there was a lot of cloud to my side," Green said. "A lot of slants I caught, there were two trailers. I don't know where I got open."
It's because he can. Whitworth thinks Green's sheer dominance has helped shape the new just-do-it normal of the past two weeks.
"He's one of the biggest leaders in that. The fact of the matter is, he's a dominant football player and a great one. We need him to be our J.J. Watt," Whitworth said. "We need him to dominate people and let them know about it. Not by talking, but if you want to stop him, try, that's the next step. That's what all of us need."
Dalton really needed it. Dalton needs anything to shake his rep in big games. They'll get on him about cornerback Johnathan Joseph's pick-six, but they won't say anything about him completing 69 percent of his quick passes against a defense that feasts on turnovers and came into the game with a league-high 23. And that he didn't make his first road turnover until Thanksgiving Week.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson made sure his players knew that Dalton's stomping grounds of Katy, Texas are just around the corner
"Getting to come here and seeing this atmosphere you could tell that it was personal," said wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who caught Dalton's first home NFL TD pass in nine quarters here. "We had to come here and get this win for Andy (Dalton), with it being his hometown we needed to get it for him.
"He didn't say anything else about it. He didn't have to. I didn't realize how close Katy was to Houston, but Coach Jackson said something about it last night and we took that to heart…He just told us that your quarterback is from here and you need to protect him and help get this win for him this week."
It's not that the Bengals are finally comfortable with a new coordinator. Whitworth thinks it is because Jackson makes it uncomfortable that the offense is starting to find its way.
Take it upon yourself.
"That's the challenge Hue has put before us," Whitworth said. "Coming off New Orleans, I bet there were people ecstatic with that win. He chewed everybody out. He told everybody Andy had a good game and everybody else did not play up to standard. We've challenged guys. It makes it uncomfortable. It makes things a little chippy. That's good."
Let's see, that's back-to-back road wins for the first time since Oct. 13-20 of last season, the sixth time Green has gone for back-to-back 100-yard games, the….
"It doesn't say anything," Green said, "until you get in the playoffs."