NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Bengals completed their fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the season and their first five-game winning streak in 23 years with a 24-17 win over the Titans on Sunday at LP Field that put them into a tie for first place in the AFC North with Baltimore at 6-2.
The Ravens took a page out of the Bengals playbook and beat the Steelers, 23-20, Sunday night with eight seconds left, dropping the Steelers a half-game behind at 6-3 to set up this Sunday's 1 p.m. steel cage match at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium as the Bengals got a leg up on such powers as the Steelers and Patriots in the wild AFC standings.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton threw his third touchdown pass of the day on third down, a five-yarder to Andre Caldwell with just under 11 minutes left in the game that gave the Bengals a 20-17 lead.
Then the Bengals got the first turnover of the game with 3:49 left on a strip by cornerback Nate Clements of Titans tight end Jared Cook and Clements recovered the fumble at the Tennessee 21. Three short gains by running back Cedric Benson (78 yards on 20 carries) set up Mike Nugent's 36-yard field goal with 1:55 left that made it 24-17.
Tennessee, out of timeouts, could get no further than the Bengals 32 as the clock ran out.
This was one of the AFC games the Bengals didn't want to come back and haunt them at the end of the season. Now at 5-1 in the conference the Bengals have a game edge on the 4-2 Patriots, Ravens and Steelers in AFC play, a game and a half lead on the 4-3 Jets, a two-game lead on the 3-3 Chargers and Chiefs, and a three-game lead in the loss column on the Titans and Raiders.
The Bengals received a scare late in the game as defensive Carlos Dunlap appeared to hurt his hamstring on his second sack of the day with seven seconds remaining, and he gingerly walked off the field. Following the game indications were that Dunlap suffered both cramping and a hamstring strain.
Dalton hit 22 of 39 passes for 217 yards and a 97.9 passer rating.
Dalton's first three-touchdown game came as the result of an amazing drive in which the Bengals overcame holding penalties to right guard Bobbie Williams and right tackle Andre Smith, the last one a crusher on Smith in the red zone.
But rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, held to two catches in the first half, made a top-four-pick-in-the-draft play when he snatched Dalton's 20-yard catch on the right sideline on third-and-18 after the hold on Smith as two Titans defenders, safety Michael Griffin and cornerback Jason McCourty, collided into him and then each other and both needed time to get up.
Green (83 yards on seven catches) led a big second half for Dalton's wide receivers, Caldwell and Jerome Simpson after a tough first half.
The Titans took Green out of the game in the first half, but Dalton went for him down the left side in the middle of the third quarter and McCourty was called for a 45-yard pass interference penalty.
Then Simpson made the first of the man-mountain plays by Cincinnati's starting wide receivers. Simpson took a bullet 15-yard pass on third-and-five from Dalton over the middle at the goal line and survived hellacious a Titans sandwich on hits by Griffin and linebacker Barrett Ruud for the touchdown that cut the lead to 17-14 with 6:33 left.
The Bengals defense turned around its shaky first half with some good pass pressure and held running back Chris Johnson to 64 yards on 14 carries. Dunlap came up with a sack and a third-down pressure that turned into a punt, and tackle Geno Atkins stopped a third-down quarterback scramble a yard short.
The Bengals blitzed Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the 36-year-old veteran made them pay in the first half with his pinpoint passing staking Tennessee to a 17-7 halftime lead.
With the Bengals front four unable to come up with any pressure in what has been their staple this season, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer brought the blitz, particularly on the two-minute drill that began with 2:55 left and the Bengals didn't get near him as Hasselbeck hit wide-open backup receiver Lavelle Hawkins for his first NFL touchdown catch on a 16-yarder with eight seconds left that made it 17-7.
The Bengals dropped eight into pass coverage and somehow Hawkins got behind cornerback Kelly Jennings. Hasselbeck (24-of-41 for 272 yards) abused the Bengals with tight end Jared Cook in that last drive. With the Bengals bringing the house, Cook caught three balls for 39 yards and running back Javon Ringer ran past a blitz on third-and-nine from the Bengals 30 for a killing 14-yard gain.
Johnson was having his best game of the season with 55 yards on nine carries in the half, but it was Hasselbeck that did the damage. Johnson did jump-start Tennessee's first touchdown drive with an 18-yard run on the left edge aided by a block on safety Chris Crocker.
But outside linebacker Thomas Howard was called for face-guarding Cook before Hasselbeck found a wide-open Craig Stevens down the middle of the field for his sixth catch of the season, a 25-yarder. Hasselbeck then found Damian Williams on the back line of the end zone and he made a nice play behind Crocker to keep his feet in for an eight-yard touchdown catch that gave the Titans the lead at 10-7 with 5:18 left in the second quarter.
The Bengals offense could only produce one touchdown in the first half even though Benson came off his one-game suspension running hard with 38 yards on 10 carries and Bernard Scott adding 12 more on three carries in the first half.
But the Titans Cover 2 took Green out of the game with double teams, holding him two catches for 16 yards, and he didn't get much help from his other wide receivers. Caldwell (no catches) struggled with Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan in the slot and Simpson (one catch for 18 yards) killed one drive when he dropped an easy third-down catch for a first down, wiped out Scott's 13-yard run with a hold, and his illegal shift negated a first-down run by Benson.
So Dalton had to look elsewhere. Despite starting tight end Jermaine Gresham's second straight absence, the Bengals backup tight ends provided Cincinnati's only touchdown of the half when Dalton found Colin Cochart for his first NFL touchdown on a one-yard pass with 10:41 left in the second quarter that gave the Bengals a 7-3 lead.
Donald Lee, who started in place of Gresham, made two huge plays in the drive. His 22-yarder on a screen came courtesy of Scott's block on strong safety Jordan Babineaux and on third-and-10 from the Tennessee 35, Lee beat Babineaux down the seam for a 25-yarder.
That set up a third-and-goal from the 1 and with Benson the only back behind him, Dalton had 320-pound defensive tackle Domata Peko and 320-pound right tackle Dennis Roland in front of him as extra blockers. He went play-action, rolled to his right, waited, then threw a low seed across his body to Cochart going to his knees.
After a three-and-out, the Bengals defense found out on its second series that Johnson is far from washed up. The Titans went 55 yards for Rob Bironas's 43-yard field goal that gave Tennessee a 3-0 lead halfway through the first quarter. Johnson squirted away from safety Reggie Nelson's missed tackle on the back side for a 20-yard run and went 21 yards on a quick pass out of the backfield off a play-action fake to the fullback.
The Bengals survived the loudest venue in the NFL last week in Seattle, but it took just four snaps for them to have a problem here. On third-and-10, Dalton had to run to the sideline to get the play from offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and then had to call timeout as the play clock hit zero.
When play resumed, Dalton nearly took a coverage sack before he threw an ill-advised ball to running back Brian Leonard that nearly got picked off and forced Cincinnati's first punt.
Benson got warmed up on the second Bengals drive, wiping out a false start by left guard Nate Livings with a 12-yard run off left tackle and then a nine-yard run to the left edge aided by left tackle Andrew Whitworth's block. Finnegan came through the slot to dump Benson for a four-yard loss to set up a third-and-five. Dalton threw a good ball to Simpson over the middle but he dropped it.
PREGAME NOTES: As expected, three key Bengals were sidelined for Sunday's game at LP Field against the Titans when middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (ankle), tight end Jermaine Gresham (hamstring), and cornerback Adam Jones (hamstring) were on the inactive list.
Jones worked out with Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle during pregame and jogged fairly hard but the coaches must have decided to get him ready for next Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Steelers.
Maualuga continues to move much better, while indications were Gresham didn't make the trip and it's unclear when any of the three are going to practice but there is hope all or some can go Wednesday.
Also inactive for the Bengals on Sunday were the four rookies that have become weekly appearances in linebacker Dontay Moch, safety Robert Sands, wide receiver Ryan Whalen and right guard Clint Boling.
Head coach Marvin Lewis made it clear early in the week he's not going to rush anybody who's injured and he's ready to move on with his depth. He singled out backup tight ends Donald Lee and Colin Cochart after the way they filled in for Gresham last week.
"I thought the guys did a nice job in his place last week, and if that is the way we go, that is the way we go," Lewis said Wednesday.
"But we are kind of moving beyond that 'worry about this guy, worry about that guy' mentality. I know you guys have to ask those questions, but I don't think we really care who is in there. We are just going to go and play, and the next guy will step up and play. You (injured players) can catch up to us at some point. Maybe you will maybe you won't. But the other guys just have to keep playing."
Lee was expected to start Sunday, but Cochart started the game last week. Dan Skuta got his third straight start in place of Maualuga. The only change in the Titans lineup was Derrick Morgan in place of Dave Ball at defensive end. Ball had surfaced on the injury report during the week but was active.
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer threw no brickbats at his former club when he sat down with Shannon Sharpe of CBS for an interview before his first start with Oakland. He told Sharpe what he's been telling everybody: It was time to move on and he respects Bengals president Mike Brown and Lewis.
Safety Reggie Nelson, a big reason for the Bengals' success against the run, knows Titans running back Chris Johnson well. They not only played each other twice a year when Nelson was in Jacksonville in '08 and '09, but they have a mutual friend in wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker, drafted with Nelson to Jacksonville in 2007. Nelson says Johnson is not the kind of guy changed by a big contract.
"I've hung out with him a few times and Chris is a good dude," Nelson said. "Chris is Chris. Everybody has some bad games. He's a great back. You've seen his highlights. He's fast. Not many are faster. You know he'll have some big games, we just have to make sure it's not against us.
Earlier in the week, Jones, drafted by the Titans with the sixth pick in the 2005 draft, took responsibility for his raft of off-field problems during his three years with them. As he walked off the field during pregame he signed autographs and talked to fans.
The Titans won the toss and took the ball with the Bengals captains looking on: Jeromy Miles, Kyle Cook, Domata Peko, Brandon Johnson, and Donald Lee.