While quarterback Andy Dalton hit 69 percent of his 35 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns to three different receivers, the Bengals wove 155 rushing yards on 35 more carries with a balance that crushed the AFC champion Colts with Cincinnati's record third straight 40-point plus effort at home and its seventh straight PBS win dating back to last year's season finale. In extending their longest home winning streak since Boomer and Ickey and Sam roamed The Jungle in the late '80s with 10 straight, Sunday's 41-21 holiday party in the 25-degree weather guaranteed a third straight winning season and a shot at clinching the division next week with a win next Sunday night in Pittsburgh (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5) followed by a Baltimore loss in Detroit on Monday night.
It truly is Christmastime in the city.
"It was awesome," defensive tackle Domata Peko said of an offense that for the first time in weeks bailed out its marvelous defense. "A big shout-out to the offense and especially Andy. People have been on his back and whatnot, but all our guys and everyone in this building trusts in him. He had a great game today. When the offense is clicking like that, look out, we're a tough to team to beat because our defense is going to be there. We'll be ready."
It's tough to say the defense wasn't ready Sunday against a dangerous quarterback and a division champion. The Bengals held the Colts scoreless for the game's first 35 minutes as Cincinnati took a 21-0 lead. They wanted to make the Colts one-dimensional and Indy's backs averaged barely three yards per shot on 10 tentative carries. Once the Bengals did that, they wanted to take away Indy's biggest threat, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, and Hilton didn't have a catch until 12 minutes left in the game, finishing with just two catches for seven yards.
But the resourceful Andrew Luck found a way to throw four touchdown passes and pull the Colts within 21-14 and 35-21 against a defense that had allowed just four touchdowns of any kind combined in the five previous PBS games. Luck's 326 yards marked just the second time in the past 27 games the Bengals had allowed a 300-yard passer. During the game they lost cornerback Terence Newman with what may be a serious knee injury because he was seen on crutches in the locker room and safety George Iloka with a blow to the head.
It's believed to be the first time since Nov. 21, 2010 when former Bengal Ryan Fitzpatrick did it for the Bills at PBS that a QB has thrown for four TDs against Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. It has only happened twice in Zimmer's 96 games in Cincinnati. The other was on Oct. 18, 2009 against Houston's Matt Schaub. Both were losses.
With cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick scrambling off the bench to replace Newman, the Colts scored one more late touchdown after Luck's beautiful throw over Newman's outstretched hand on his final play of the day before he left to get his knee checked found wide receiver LaVon Brazill for a 29-yard touchdown that cut it to 35-21 with 9:48 left.
"We had a couple of missed tackles," said Peko, a vast understatement of the YouTube bloopers that resulted in Indy's first two scores. "We had a couple of lapses in communication when (Iloka) went down. We'll be fine. Zim will get it right. It was a big win, especially against an AFC team that is 8-4, too. If we just keep doing what we've been doing and keep working hard and keep trying to be the best, we can play with anybody, I think."
Let's face it. The Bengals are finally playing with a riveting brew bordering on confidence and outright swag because their offense is no longer tentative and indecisive. How many Bengals teams have melted down when great passers got hot? Not this one because the offense answered calmly and efficiently.
"The biggest thing in this game is we were able to answer the bell," left guard Andrew Whitworth said of his offense. "To me, in a situation where you've got a lead and all of a sudden it gets the momentum with two consecutive scores like that, to me that's the closest thing you can simulate to playoff football.
" 'How are we going to get it back and respond?' When we were able to go on that run there and score three (out of the next four drives), to me that's what we haven't been able to do in the past. That's the biggest testament to what we did right there."
When the Colts cut it to 21-14 in a span of 3:37 in the third quarter, the Bengals scored on their next two drives to go up 35-14 early in the fourth when wide receiver A.J. Green smoked cornerback Darius Butler for a nine-yard touchdown pass that Dalton lofted over his outside shoulder.
"They picked us up all year; today we backed them up," Green said of his defense.
Each drive featured a big-time third-down play. Four plays after Luck cut it to 21-14, Dalton faced a third-and-two from the Colts 34 and couldn't wait to get it to running back Giovani Bernard when he saw him in the flat and middle linebacker Pat Angerer trying to amble over to cover him. About five seconds later the Bengals were on the Colts 13 after a 21-yard play and three plays later Dalton flipped it to wide-open tight end Jermaine Gresham for a one-yard touchdown.
"That's the matchup we want; Gio on a backer," Dalton said of his first option on that play. "They can't cover him."
Then on the next series Dalton was staring at a third-and-six from the Colts 40 and lofted a corner route to wide receiver Marvin Jones on the left sideline as Dalton dropped it behind Butler and in front of converging free safety LaRon Landry for 29 yards and a first down.
"They were basically playing us man-to-man," Jones said. "The running game helps with that, but they play man most of the time anyway and it was up to the receivers to win."
Green and Jones won enough to each score their eighth touchdowns of the season to remain in the team lead. Green scored his two plays later on the fade against Butler.
"The Colts don't play star coverage on anybody; they don't double anybody," Green said. "They just try to pressure your quarterback and shake him up and our offensive line did a great job picking up blitzes and we ran the ball to keep them honest."
Dalton was throwing free and easy because no one touched him. Literally. The Colts had no sacks or hits on Dalton.
So let's face it. If the offense is playing decisively and well, isn't it because the offensive line is being physical in the running game while not allowing a sack for the third straight game? And if the line is playing like that, isn't it because the Bengals have decided to replace injured left guard Clint Boling with Whitworth and replace him with Anthony Collins?
What we do know is Whitworth made his first start at guard in five years Sunday and the results were as good as they were last week in San Diego, when he played all but five snaps at left guard. The Bengals kept the ball nearly 38 minutes while averaging 4.4 yards per rush and, even better, the move is invigorating not only for the rest of the line, but the rest of the team.
"How about that new offensive guard? Big 77?" Peko asked. "I love seeing him pull. Man, it's like, 'Holy smokes, 6-7 dude, 350 coming around.' No one is going to want that. We love seeing that on defense. It's a boost for the team."
Whitworth said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden asked him earlier in the week if he felt he was throwing away a Pro Bowl season at tackle if he moved to guard. Whitworth gave him the answer he gives everybody else: whatever gives us the best chance to win. "That's why I have a 'C' on my chest," Whitworth said. But clearly he loves it in there.
"Those guys are playing great," running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis said. "When you talk about Whit, you talk humility. For a Pro Bowl left tackle to move down with no questions asked and do the great job he does, it shows you what kind of leader he is and what type of guy he is. I love his aggression, especially because he's playing guard. I get to get in his face and get him going a little bit because he's pulling on those powers for me."
While his teammates feed off him, Whitworth believes his team feeds off the running game.
"I think it does. I think we feel like playing physical football and being able to build plays off of that is really the identity of this football team," Whitworth said. "Now we're really in a groove in making the identity. I think this is where we're going to operate well. We're able to run the football and be physical with teams, and also build passes and all those things around it."
Last week Whitworth and the Bengals buried the Chargers with the power play where the guard pulls while everyone else including the back goes downhill. On Sunday they didn't run it as much.
"We ran a little bit of everything," Whitworth said. "If you can run all the different styles of run plays and make them work, it's really tough for a defense to game plan you one way or the other. And today we were able to do that."
It has corresponded to the pass game where the Bengals have gone 12 straight quarters without giving up a sack. If the offense is hot, the offensive line is hotter.
"That's a good streak, but we want to make it six," said Whitworth, alluding to the final three games of the season. "That's our goal: to end this season keeping the quarterback upright with a lot of room and we can have gravy."