NEW ORLEANS - At 5-3-1 and needing a gut-check effort in one of the most hostile NFL venues, the Bengals offered one of their most complete performances of the season Sunday in the Superdome and it was highlighted by an A.J. Green-Andy Dalton touchdown drive worthy of their era when Dalton threw his third touchdown pass of the game to give the Bengals a 27-10 lead with 11:29 left in the game.
Right after the two-minute warning Bengals rookie right end Will Clarke recovered a fumble to finish off the Saints, 27-10, and regain first place in the AFC North.
After the Saints had cut the lead to 20-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter and Green was called for offensive pass interference on the next snap, the Superdome din seemed to hit record decibels with the crowd sensing the kill on third-and-18 from the Bengals 12.
But Dalton dropped back and threw a 38-yard strike to Green beating double coverage down the right sideline. Then on the next third down, third-and-two from the Saints 42, Dalton knifed an 18-yard dart to Green in double coverage over the middle. They finished it off when Green ran past coverage for a 24-yard touchdown down the left sideline, Dalton threw another lovely bomb, and Green skated on one foot to survive a replay
That gave Green a 127-yard day and jacked Dalton's passer rating to 143.9 on 16 of 22 passing for 220 yards as he firmly shoved the Cleveland disaster behind him with the highest passer rating of his career.
The Bengals jumped to a 20-3 lead on the Saints with 6:03 left in the third quarter when Dalton hit wide open tight end Jermaine Gresham for a two-yard touchdown pass off a play-action bootleg.
It was the second touchdown of the day for Gresham for his first two of the season and heading into the fourth quarter, Gresham was up 2-0 on Saints tight ends touchdown machine Jimmy Graham.
Also helping on the drive was the jack-hammer running of rookie running back Jeremy Hill as the Louisiana native went over the 100-yard rushing mark for the second time in three games with two big runs on the drive on his way to 152 yards on 27 carries.
His backup, Rex Burkhead, ignited the drive when Dalton reversed his field on a scramble out of the pocket and racing to the right he picked up Burkhead crossing to the sticks for an 11-yard catch-and-run.
The Bengals defense was brilliant against quarterback Drew Brees, the second most accurate passer of all-time. He was all of that, hitting 33 of 41 passes for 255 yards against a Bengals pass rush that had no sacks. But most of them were check-down passes with the longest pass a 17-yarder in garbage time.
Brees finally broke through when he threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kenny Stills on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 20-10.
But the defense came back to force two force a punt after Green's touchdown with first-round pick Darqueze Dennard in the fray and getting a big third-down pass defense. Cornerback Leon Hall left with a sore Achilles and he could have returned, but the coaches chose to rest it.
Leaping on the momentum of a goal-line stand that thwarted the high-octane Saints' 18-play drive, the Bengals responded with a 15-play drive of their own that helped them to a 13-3 half-time lead.
The Bengals were trying to run out the first half clock with 20 seconds left when Hill broke the longest run of his career. He cut the 62-yarder back into the middle of the field, but sprinting Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis saved him when he got the timeout with one second left. After Mike Nugent kicked a 42-yard field goal, the Saints' second-ranked offense got booed off the field.
In the shadow of The Stand, Dalton, bouncing back from his 2.0 against Cleveland, led the 94-yard drive that resulted in Nugent's 22-yard field goal that made it 10-3 with 2:52 left in the half. Dalton went triple digits for a 128.8 passer rating on eight of 11 for 92 yards.
Dalton, starting from his two-yard line, got the Bengals out of danger when his play-action bootleg to Burkhead picked up a first down for 11 yards. Then with 7:30 left in the half, Dalton, who converted his five of six third downs in the half, found Green for the first time Sunday on third-and-two. Then off play-action, Green caught a 21-yarder as he finished the half with two catches for 34 yards.
On third-and-one from the Saints 3, linebacker David Hawthorne ran in unblocked and dumped Hill to force the field goal. Hill finished the half with 97 yards on 12 carries. The Bengals defense, ranked next-to-last against the rush, came to play and they throttled the Saints' No. 6 running attack at 2.5 yards per carry on 15 carries in the half.
The defensive stand that teams can only hope turns around a season came early in the second quarter when the Bengals stoned the Saints on four plays from the 3. And that followed a personal foul on defensive tackle Domata Peko for throwing down running back Mark Ingram (33 yards on 14 carries in the half) for a three-yard loss.
On first down from the 3, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick broke up wide receiver Marques Colston in the end zone and on second and third down Peko led the charging line that ganged up Ingram and forced a fourth-and-one from the 1. When Brees flipped a pass to fullback Erik Lorig, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and safety Shawn Williams converged on him in the flat for a one-yard loss on the 18th play of the drive.
The Bengals converted three third-and-eights on their first drive of the game and on the last one Gresham recovered his fumble in the end zone to give them a 7-0 lead with 3:14 left in the first quarter on his first touchdown of the season.
Gresham's fumble on the 12-yard catch capped a 12-play drive where Dalton found his legs quickly. On the first third-and-eight he hit wide receiver James Wright at the sticks as the rookie who had no catches for LSU last season made his presence felt right away. Later in the drive Wright was open for a touchdown on a flea flicker but the protection didn't hold up and Dalton had to throw it away.
On the second third-and-eight, Dalton hit Hill on a shovel pass and the other Louisiana rookie made his presence felt when he bolted up the middle for 13 yards with a nice jump cut as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson went deep into the playbook early.
On their first possession the Bengals defense reared up in the red zone and held for Shayne Graham's 31-yard field goal that gave the Saints a 3-0 lead five minutes into the game.
New Orleans, second best in the NFL converting third downs, converted their first three in driving 14 plays. The Bengals held against the run, but Brees fired two first-down passes to wide receiver Kenny Stills and one to Graham for 15 yards in the middle of a zone between linebacker Vinny Rey and safety Reggie Nelson. Stills got loose for a 16-yardwe on a back-shoulder throw against cornerback Leon Hall. And the Saints got an extra 15 yards when safety George Iloka was flagged for hitting Graham in the back of the head on an incomplete pass over the middle.
But the Bengals forced the field goal when Rey made a nice play to blow up a screen pass on second down and on third down defensive lineman Robert Geathers tipped a pass.
The Bengals did a great job on the Brees-Graham combo. Graham had just those two catches for 17 yards in the half as Brees was 15 of 20 for 118 yards. But he got only three points out of 32 snaps on his first two drives. They got big-time production from their nickel pass defense package with Kirkpatrick playing on the outside and Hall in the slot before he got hurt. Graham, the NFL's leading tight end, had just three catches for 29 yards.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals hope they lined up without several key players for one of the last times this season Sunday when they went against the Saints in the Superdome.
Cornerback Terence Newman (knee), who was questionable, and right tackle Andre Smith (knee), who was doubtful, joined the already scrubbed linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) and running back Giovani Bernard (hip/shoulder) on the inactive list.
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was questionable after missing four games with a hamstring injury, got the start.
Head coach Marvin Lewis offered two surprises when wide receiver Greg Little and defensive tackle Devon Still looked to be healthy scratches. In the last two games Little had one catch for eight yards after he had three big ones in the win over Baltimore. Still had played in eight straight games after he signed from the practice squad following the opener.
Rookie right end Will Clarke took his Still's place on the defensive line when he suited up for the second time in his NFL career. The other spot on offense went to backup guard-center T.J. Johnson, also up for the second time this season. Backup tackle-guard Tanner Hawkinson was also an expected healthy scratch.
With Little down, Louisiana native James Wright should see more snaps from scrimmage as the rookie wide receiver plays in the Superdome for the third time in his career.
Since Bernard began rehab on the field last week, the hope seems to be that he'll be back for next week's game in Houston, along with Newman and Smith. Burfict has yet to appear on the rehab field, so a more likely target date seems to be the next game in Tampa Bay on Nov. 30.
As expected, Adam Jones started in place of Newman, Marshall Newhouse in place of Andre Smith and Louisiana native Jeremy drew his fourth rookie start.
The Saints activated Keenan Lewis, setting up their best cornerback against wide receiver A.J. Green. Lewis was questionable a week after he practiced just once and that was limited on Friday.
The Saints won the toss and the offense with quarterback Drew Brees didn't hesitate to receive.