DETROIT — Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford found themselves in an air war in Sunday's second half at Ford Field, but it was Mike Nugent winning it for a second straight week with a 54-yard arrow as time ran out in a wild 27-24 Bengals victory.
It was the second-longest of his career after a 55-yarder against Oakland on Nov. 25 last season. It was the longest winner in Bengals history, tying it with Doug Pelfrey's Christmas Eve gift in 1994.
With the game tied at 24 on the first play after the two-minute warning, the Bengals faced third and a long one from the Lions 39 when tight end Jermaine Gresham was called for a false start. On third-and-six, Dalton suffered the only quarterback sack by either team when Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh lined up at end and got past right tackle Andre Smith.
With 1:40 left, Cincinnati's Kevin Huber sailed a punt to the Lions 6. Detroit managed a first down but on the next series the Lions faced a third-and-5 and safety Reggie Nelson forced an incompletion on a blitz.
A bad 28-yard punt by Lions rookie punter Sam Martin gave the Bengals one final shot in regulation from the Bengals 49. A dump pass to Giovani Bernard for eight yards to the Lions 36 after a seven-yarder to wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher set up Nugent's 54-yarder with four seconds left.
Stafford tied the game at 24 with 11:59 left on a third-and-18 fling from the 50 just as he was about to get leveled by the Bengals pass rush. Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson made an unbelievable leaping catch among three Bengals, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson as Johnson seemingly swiped it off Nelson's facemask.
That play snapped Cincinnati's NFL-leading streak of 21 straight games without allowing a 300-yard passer as Stafford finished with 357 yards as he shredded the Bengals nickel defense while converting 13 of 19 third-down tries. The Bengals didn't have a sack, but they got the pressure and third-down stop when they needed it.
Dalton, who finished with 372 yards passing of his own, got bit by one yard on the last play of the third quarter. He scrambled out of the pocket and seemingly had a first down, but he went into his slide a yard early and the Bengals had to punt it away when the Lions won the challenge. The Lions then turned that into the tying drive.
More game of inches: A.J. Green got past the secondary early in the fourth quarter, but Dalton came up just short on the pass down the middle and it was tipped away.
Nugent's 48-yard field goal gave the Bengals a 24-17 lead with 3:37 left in third quarter on a snap set up by a 30-yard pass to Gresham beating middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch down the seam as Dalton went over the 300-yard mark. Dalton finished 24-of-34 for those 372 yards, three touchdowns, and a career-best passer rating of 135.9.
Wide receiver A.J. Green had 155 yards on six catches and wide receiver Marvin Jones had 54 more on four receptions. Both had touchdown catches and so did rookie tight end Tyler Eifert.
Eifert scored his first NFL touchdown when he ran down the left sideline with cornerback Rashean Mathis. Mathis had good coverage, but Eifert made a nice adjustment as he went into the air and twisted his body around to make the 32-yard catch with 10:42 left in the third quarter that gave the Bengals a 21-10 lead.
Jones, who left with his left shoulder hanging after his touchdown at the end of the first half, kept that drive alive when he made an 18-yard catch on third-and-12.
The Bengals went in reduced in this air show because they lost their best cover cornerback, Leon Hall, when it was feared he tore his other Achilles early in the first quarter and was done for the year.
The Bengals had to reshuffle their secondary with safety Chris Crocker playing Hall's spot in the slot.
Facing a third-and-20 and down 21-10, Stafford had all the time in the world to complete a 43-yard bomb to wide receiver Kevin Ogletree down the left sideline running past cornerback Terence Newman in what appeared to be a zone. Moments later on third-and-10 from the Bengals 27, Stafford and Johnson did some foreshadowing when Johnson muscled past cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and then caught a nice back-shoulder throw for the score that cut the lead to 21-17 with 8:17 left in the third quarter.
In a wild and devastating first half, the Bengals lost Hall for the second time since 2011 and a Carlos Dunlap blocked field goal set up the improbable Bengals 14-10 halftime lead.
Even though the Lions ran 34 plays to six for the Bengals by the time Cincinnati got the ball back with 11:43 left in the second quarter, the Bengals took the lead with 41 seconds left in the half when Jones broke clean in the end zone and made a diving 12-yard touchdown catch as his left shoulder came crashing down on the end zone's back line.
Jones left the field with his left arm hanging limply after culminating a drive that began at the Lions 40 in the wake of Dunlap's block of a David Akers 34-yard field-goal attempt with 2:17 left in the half. It came two years and four days since the Bengals last had a blocked field goal when cornerback Nate Clements got a piece of Adam Vinatieri's 52-yarder against the Colts on Oct. 16, 2011.
Dalton then promptly went to his main man when Green went over the 3,000-yard mark in his career with a wide-open 13-yard catch on the sideline. That gave Green four catches for 135 yards in the half and Dalton generated another first down on third-and-seven when he hit Bernard working against Tulloch for seven yards to set up the throw to Jones.
Dalton rung up a 140.5 passer rating with 172 yards on 8-of-14 passing with two touchdowns in the half. He needed to keep up with Stafford's air show in the half. Stafford threw for 144 yards on 29 passes with 16 completions but the Bengals defense twice made the Lions kick field goals.
A 27-yard pass to Green down the seam got the Bengals going with 11:43 left in the second quarter and Dalton hit wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for 12 yards over the middle for a first down at the Lions 27 on third-and-nine.
But Gresham was called for unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when an official tried to break up a post-play scrum and Gresham ripped the ref's hand off his shoulder. That stoned the drive and Nugent missed a 47-yard field goal to the left to keep the Lions in the lead at 10-7.
Gresham then went to the locker room even though he wasn't hurt and then he came back to the Bengals sidelines.
"He went into clear his head," said head coach Marvin Lewis.
Hall, who missed the rest of the 2011 season after he tore his left Achilles on Nov. 13 against the Steelers, was working on Johnson in the end zone early in the game, leaped up, tipped it away, and immediately grabbed his right foot. He buried his face in the turf and went to the bench visibly upset before he was carted off. The club announced an Achilles injury, didn't say if it was torn, and said he wouldn't return to the game.
The Bengals also lost backup defensive tackle Devon Still for the game early in the second quarter with an elbow injury.
The Green-Dalton tandem wasted no time Sunday when they hooked up for the longest play of their three-year careers with an 82-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead on their third snap of the game with 10:59 left in the first quarter.
On first-and-15 from the Bengals 18 after a false start on left guard Clint Boling, Dalton faked the run and then rolled out to his right on a bootleg, looked downfield and saw Green strafing cornerback Chris Houston on a double move. Green waited on it on the inside at about the Lions 40 and Houston couldn't catch his balance and Green was gone for his fifth touchdown catch of the season.
Then the Lions showed how good and diverse they are on offense when they tied the score on a 16-play drive that took nearly eight minutes and ended on a third-and-three throw from Stafford to tight end Brandon Pettigrew and he made a one-handed grab working against Iloka.
It was the fourth third-down conversion of the drive for the Lions as Stafford made hay with running back Reggie Bush in matchups with the Bengals second level. Bush finished with three catches for 44 yards, but only 50 yards rushing on 20 carries as the Bengals held the Lions to 3.1 yards per rush.
But with Hall down, the Bengals were playing a lot of zone and Johnson had 40 yards on three catches. The Lions gashed the nickel defense with eight third-down conversions on 11 tries in the first half.
The Lions converted one third down on their first drive of the game before Bengals came up with a stop on third-and-six that featured WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict dropping Pettigrew for a two-yard loss out of a package that contained six defensive backs. Safety Taylor Mays and Burfict operated as linebackers and Crocker was the fifth defensive back.
On paper Sunday's game pitted two quarterbacks with polar opposite pedigrees. Cincinnati's Dalton, a second-round pick in 2011, has led the Bengals to a 23-15 record and two playoff berths in two-and-a-half seasons with a resourceful brand of intermediate accuracy and mobility, and a blossoming running game. Stafford, the overall No. 1 pick in 2009, is pure passer who rarely uses his legs in a system where the pass has come first in a stretch he has a 21-30 record with one postseason appearance. PREGAME NOTES:Lewis's healthiest week of the season netted only one switch when he released his inactive sheet for Sunday's game against the Lions at Ford Field and had backup guard-center Mike Pollak active for the first time this season.
As expected, cornerback Terence Newman figured to start despite missing two days of practice with a hip-abdomen issue. He did practice full on Friday.
Pollak, who had been shelved up until the past few weeks with a knee injury, replaced Trevor Robinson. Robinson, a second-year player who had a promising rookie season at center, has been active every game but has yet to play. He was slowed by a pectoral injury during the spring, when the Bengals signed Pollak. Pollak, a sixth-year player and former second-round pick of the Colts, impressed the team during training camp before he hurt his knee in the preseason finale.
Also inactive for the Bengals were offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson, wide receiver Ryan Whalen, cornerbacks Brandon Ghee and Chris Lewis-Harris, running back Rex Burkhead, and defensive end Margus Hunt.
Running back Joique Bell got the call for the Lions despite his sore ribs that limited him in practice this week. He's been taking the load off Bush and is a short-yardage back with 177 yards on 53 carries and 23 catches.
Lewis tapped quarterback Andy Dalton and left tackle Andrew Whitworth for his captains on offense, tackle Domata Peko and safety Reggie Nelson on defense and running back Cedric Peerman and linebacker Vincent Rey on special teams.