Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth knew right where to salute following Saturday's Heart Attack 15 Kilometer that began and ended at Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday in Cincinnati's 23-16 victory over Arizona.
"A good football team overcomes it," Whitworth said of the plethora of fourth-quarter mistakes. "Our defense did a heck of a job overcoming it and our special teams did an amazing job on punt coverage."
Two weeks after he saw his defense get beat on a two-yard touchdown pass against Houston with two seconds left, head coach Marvin Lewis said his unit learned a lesson as it held the Cardinals to three points even though Arizona had a first down on the Bengals 1-, 22- and the Cardinals 40-yard lines on the last three hectic drives in the final 4:14 the Bengals offense imploded.
Even when it looked like the Bengals had survived two lost fumbles from running back Cedric Benson in the fourth quarter, they gave the ball back to the Cardinals at the Arizona 40 when they had to punt from their own 5 after the clock stopped with 1:07 left on left guard Nate Livings's personal foul penalty.
"It was a game of momentum and we did some silly things to let them keep the momentum," Whitworth said. "I tip my hat to the defense. They played an amazing game."
A fumbled center-quarterback exchange got the Bengals out of that first-and-goal from the 1, but the Cards still got it back at the 11 and the Bengals needed safety Chris Crocker to knock away a third-down pass to the great Larry Fitzgerald at the goal line to force Jay Feely's 29-yard field goal that cut it to 23-16 with 3:16 left.
After Benson unbelievably fumbled on the next snap to give the ball right back to Arizona at the Bengals 22, the troops that had blanked the Cards for the game's first 49 minutes rallied.
"I knew we would come out today and make plays to win the game. I had no doubt in my mind, and the defense showed that kind of resiliency," Lewis said. "It was a great week of practice. Unfortunately, we lost a game two weeks ago, but you have to live and learn from that. We came into the game with a great focus this week and showed it out there on the field."
Cornerback Kelly Jennings made a sure tackle on scatback LaRod Stephens-Howling for two yards and right end Michael Johnson stopped feature back Beanie Wells for one yard, finishing him off for just 53 yards on 14 carries for the day.
Then on third-and-seven, cornerback Nate Clements led a charge that hemmed in Fitzgerald on a screen for two yards to set up the now-infamous fourth-and-5 from the Bengals 17. An all-out blitz left wide receiver Early Doucet wide open in the end zone, but he tripped and quarterback John Skelton's pass went over his head.
"The defensive guys thought he had it," Whitworth said. "A break for us."
After Fitzgerald got loose for a 39-yard wide-open bomb at the 1 on what appeared to be blown communication between safety and corner, cornerback Adam Jones made sure the Cardinals receivers didn't get their hands on another ball deep. It appared to be blown because Crocker blew a gasket at Jones on the sideline and Lewis had to separate them.
"Max, zero, everybody," Jones said of the blitz call on fourth down. "We had it called a couple of times down there. Even on the screen. You have no help (in coverage)."
It was two weeks ago in that final drive that Jones was called for pass interference with 12 seconds left.
"I like that kind of game," Jones said when the defense was called again after the second fumble. "It's like, 'Come to my man.' I had that chance a week ago and they called pass interference on me. I was praying to God they were coming to my side. You live and learn from your mistakes."
The Bengals defense built up some powerful karma in the first three quarters when it gave the Cards nothing, and in the end it allowed only one touchdown on a semi-long field, and even that was only a 61-yard drive for Arizona's first score in a 23-0 game with 11:25 left on Fitzgerald's 30-yard catch-and-run.
"We started the game fast and set the tone early," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, who had the first of five Bengals sacks on the game's third snap. "We were able to get the quarterback on his back a lot today. Which is what we try to do. Wells didn't go over 100 so we did a good job in the run game. If you do those types of things, you're going to win games."
Defensive tackle Jon Fanene was all over the place. His two sacks that gave him a tie for his career high of six, along with four quarterback hits were big enough, but his reach-in on Skelton that broke up a two-point conversion when it was 23-13 was even bigger.
And there was left end Carlos Dunlap, who came up with a sack and three more quarterback hits that gave him an imposing 27 pressures on the season. His pursuit of Skelton turned into Clements's interception late in the first half and set up the Bengals second and final touchdown.
Dunlap looks to be getting it back in his second game back after missing three with a hamstring problem he aggravated in Baltimore on Nov. 20. What does a healthy Dunlap mean? Would the Texans have been able to pull off those two fourth-quarter drives two weeks ago with him chasing T.J. Yates?
"He's a freak. He goes 285, 290, runs a 4.5, 4.6, 4.7," said outside linebacker Thomas Howard. "With him and Michael Johnson on the edge, it's a nightmare for any quarterback in the National Football League. We like to have him back. You saw what he brings."
But one of the major themes of the Bengals week of preparation had been hammered at the special teams. Against rookie touchdown machine Patrick Peterson with four punt return touchdowns of at least 82 yards, they needed to get back to their early season form of dominating field position.
Although kicker Mike Nugent, who came in as the league's field-goal percentage leader, stubbed his toe with two missed field goals the Bengals coverage teams didn't.
Gunner Jeromy Miles made the play of the day and it wasn't against Peterson. With the Bengals punting from about their 5 and Arizona having no timeouts with 57 seconds left, Miles dumped Andre Roberts at the Cardinals 40 for a one-yard loss.
"It was a gunner's game because we knew (Peterson) wasn't going to call fair catches and none of their returners are big fair-catch guys," Miles said. "We knew we had to get down there in their face and discourage them."
Before Peterson left with an Achilles injury early in the third quarter, he didn't get a shot. The Bengals used their best defense against him when they didn't have to punt in the first half. On the first one in the second half, Kevin Huber punted it high enough and got good enough coverage that Peterson had to do what he hates to do and called a fair catch at his 19. Then Huber had a tough deal when the Bengals had to punt from their 45 and putting it into the end zone over Peterson's head was probably the best thing.
But if the punt cover team was clutch, the Bengals No. 1 kick cover team in the NFL was immense. The Bengals came in holding foes to the 20.5 yard-line on kickoffs and on Saturday they held the Cardinals to their 12, 17, 20 (touchback), 26, 20 and 14.
Miles led the way with two tackles on punts and kicks, but he had plenty of help from old standbys, like special teams leading tackler Cedric Peerman (who came into Saturday one behind Miles), linebacker Dan Skuta, starting safety Reggie Nelson, and fellow gunner Andrew Hawkins.
Mission accomplished. Despite the offense giving it away in the fourth quarter, the Bengals average drive start was their own 33 while Arizona began at its 30.
"We kept pounding it," Miles said of the kick coverage. "It's just a big day for our coverage team to be where we are in the NFL and for our team to be where we are potentially going to the playoffs."
The regulars knew how special this win was.
"Our special teams did a great job today because they have some special returners back there," Peko said. "I think our special teams coverage held up today and kept us in the game."
DANDY DUO: The rookie tandem of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green did enough Saturday to do what no one thought they could do draft day and lead the Bengals into the final game of the season next Sunday for a shot at the playoffs.
In his featured matchup with fellow top five pick Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals cornerback, Green gutted it out with his sprained right shoulder. He didn't look quite himself with just two catches for 25 yards, his lowest output since he left the Nov. 13 Pittsburgh game with a hyperextended knee in the first quarter. But he did draw a 21-yard pass interference penalty on Peterson on a go route down the right sideline early in the game that set up the first Bengals touchdown.
"He grabbed me," said Green, who had some mega college matchups with Peterson. "He's a heck of a player. It's always good to go against him."
Peterson hurt his Achilles covering Green on another deep ball that Green seemed to have him beat early in the third quarter, but Peterson was able to pick off the ball that was underthrown when Dalton got drilled on a safety blitz. Adrian Wilson was called for roughing Dalton, taking away the pick but not the injury on a huge swing for the Bengals.
Green said his shoulder gave him no problems and said he only felt it once. It happened when he landed on it after he had to twist behind for a 21-yard catch in double coverage. That's the one that pushed him past Cris Collinsworth for the team's rookie receiving yardage record. Collinsworth had 67 caches for 1,009 yards 30 years ago. Green now has 1,031 yards on 63 and needs five more catches against the Ravens to get the receptions record.
"It held up pretty good. I came down on it one time," Green said. "It will be all right."
Dalton's two touchdown passes gave him 20, making him the first rookie since the 1970 merger to throw for 20 while quarterbacking at least eight wins. He also joins Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Charley Conerly as the only rookies to throw for 20 touchdowns.
"It's been a big year, for me and for this team," Dalton said. "We've got to find a way to get the preparation and get ready for them, because (the Ravens) going to come out fighting."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Benson got his third straight 1,000-yard season with 57 yards on 16 carries, giving him 1,016 for a 3.9-yard average. He joins Corey Dillon from 1997-2002 and Rudi Johnson from 2004-06 as those in franchise history with three straight.
» Benson was replaced in the last series by Bernard Scott after losing two fumbles in a span of 6:15 in the fourth quarter. After fumbling seven times last season, Benson didn't fumble until the Bengals recovered all three of his bobbles last week in St. Louis.
"It's something that we've got to get fixed. It's not good," Lewis said. "You can't win football games putting the ball on the ground. We learned from that last year."
» Howard left with a leg whip briefly in the second half, but he returned, was back on the field until the last snap, and expects to play next Sunday.
» Jones dropped back a couple of times to return punts, but only got a chance to run one back. It was a short one and Jones caught it on the run. But he got caught up in the wash when he tried to cut back and it turned out to be a four-yarder. It was his first crack at it since he took one 63 yards against Seattle on Oct. 30 on his first play he touched a ball since suffering a neck injury a year before.