The enormity of what the Bengals had just done Sunday at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium against a Rex Ryan defense seemed to hit the X-and-O men before everybody else.
After Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had thrown for five touchdown passes and 325 yards to put the Bengals in the middle of the AFC playoff picture at 6-2 at the halfway point with a 49-9 victory, even offensive coordinator Jay Gruden seemed taken aback that his offense racked up 402 yards against the NFL's fourth-best defense.
"Not many people can put up a performance like this against a Rex Ryan defense. I don't think many people will," Gruden said. "It's a great tribute to what he did in the passing game and the running game and the protections."
Ryan, one of the more respected defensive minds in the game, couldn't remember anything quite like it.
"We got beat in every coverage known to man—five touchdown passes, I don't know how many times that's happened in my lifetime—not very often," he said.
It's the kind of game the Bengals thought they could put together, but one the playoff teams of 2009, 2011 and 2012 never really did. But this one ...
Safety Chris Crocker, one of Sunday's many stars with a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first snap of the second half, has been in the middle of those three teams and he sensed he had seen something special.
"You savor moments like this," Crocker said. "In 2009 we knew we were good, but we didn't know how good we were until late in the season and we were suffocating people. It reminds me of that season.
"You get to about the eighth or ninth game and you are what you are. We're getting to that point at knowing what kind of team we are. We're pretty good when we want to be. We're pretty doggone good. I think we're more talented than 2009. Look at the receiving corps. Look at our first-round DBs. And we were healthy. Now we're relying on our depth. We have to rely on our depth and we're still really doggone good."
Depth? The club's third wide receiver, Marvin Jones, set a franchise record with four touchdown catches. Not two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.
"That's tough to get, especially in this league. The last time I've seen something like that (four touchdowns) is in high school," said Green, who still managed his third straight 100-yard game. "We have to play like this every week. We're not going to put up all these points every week, but we've got to be consistent. That's what separates the good teams from the great teams is that consistency on offense."
And, the Bengals went into the game without their best cornerback, Leon Hall, and in the first half lost their starting middle linebacker, Rey Maualuga, with a concussion, and their left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, with a knee injury and still put together their most complete victory of the season. The Bengals also generated the most points in the A.J. Green-Dalton era, racked up their biggest margin of victory since Sam Wyche waved goodbye to Jerry Glanville at the end of the 61-7 rout of Houston in 1989, and extended their streak to holding foes without a touchdown at PBS to nine-plus quarters.
In fact, the Bengals went the entire month of October without giving up a touchdown after giving just a total of four field goals to the AFC East Patriots and Jets.
"This is a veteran team, but when you're talking about veterans you're talking about guys with three, four, five years. They're still kids. They're not even in their primes," Whitworth said. "We feel like the best is in front of us as long as we get better every time we step on the field. That's what we believe."
Dalton, who turns 26 Tuesday, celebrated his last game as a 25-year-old in his 40th NFL start in memorable fashion when he devastated the Jets in all areas of the field. Not only did all five career-high scoring passes come from within the red zone, he threw a pair of 53-yard bombs to Green while upping his passer rating to 116.7 in the Bengals four-game winning streak. He also put up five touchdown passes against the Jets for the first time since Dan Marino in 1988.
(Why not? It's the first time the Bengals have been 4-0 at home since the 1988 AFC championship season of 1988.)
The kid who's not supposed to be able to throw downfield is averaging 9.5 yards per pass since the last loss in Cleveland on Sept. 29. Dalton's season passer rating has zoomed to 99 with his yards per attempt now up over eight yards. That is sixth-best in the NFL behind Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo.
"It starts up front with the protection," Gruden said after Dalton got sacked just once and that was on a rollout. "The protection is giving him a chance to see the defense, seeing coverages and getting the ball to people. Whenever your quarterback has success like that, unless he's running around with his head cut off, it's because of your offensive line and tight ends."
With 11 touchdowns and three picks in the month of October while hitting 68 percent of his passes, Dalton is on the hottest stretch of his career with three straight 300-yard games with at least three touchdown passes and he's been barely touched in the last two while getting sacked twice.
"This is where I want to be and how I want to be playing. It's tough to do, but you have to be consistent with it. There's times where you can have a big game, but the great players in this league consistently do it. That's what I'm striving to be," Dalton said. "Our offensive line has played great; shoot, this whole year, much less today. I feel like I didn't even get hit out there. They're a big part of it. They're a big part of the success in the passing game and everything we were able to do. They did a really good job today.
"I'm playing with a lot of confidence. I'm seeing things out there. There's a lot that's put on me. I feel like I've gotten better as time has gone on. There's a lot of work that I've put in to wanting to be able to play like I've been playing the last couple of weeks. And all of the work is paying off."
Dalton may be torrid the last couple of weeks but for the last year he's been leading the Bengals to where they haven't been in decades. Put together this 6-2 start with last year's 7-1 finish and the Bengals are 13-3 in their last 16 games and Dalton's career record is 10 games over .500 (25-15) with the best winning percentage in Bengals history.
"He just comes in every day and goes to work," Green said. "He doesn't care what the media or anyone says."
And Dalton has done it in a variety of ways. Last week the Lions dared him to beat them with eight in the box and he did with his career-best passer rating of 135.9. On Sunday, the Jets dared him to beat them deep with their one-on-one press coverage and with the line giving him time Dalton uncorked five passes of at least 24 yards while getting completions to seven different receivers. The Jets opted to rely on their four-man pass rush more than Ryan's signature blitzes, but like it has all month against some nasty defensive lines the offensive line responded.
"It was important to take some shots. We have so much respect for their defense that the 15-play, 80-yard drive was going to be damn near impossible," Gruden said. "We thought we had to get some chunk plays. We saw some looks we had the ability to do that and luckily we took advantage of them. One-on-ones and some of their quarters coverage where their safeties were kind of tight and we took advantage with routes over the top of them. It was good to see."
It was so efficient and good that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis thought back to quarterback Troy Aikman's Cowboys of the '90s when he compared his club's concept of balance and how the Bengals have top players at the same positions. "They had guys like Michael Irvin and (Jay) Novacek and Emmitt Smith and they had a quarterback that played within himself and delivered the football brilliantly all the time," Lewis said. "And that 's what you want. I think we have some other pieces that we can keep developing."
Lewis called Sunday his team's most complete game of the season. He wouldn't say that it was the most complete of his 11 seasons, but with a two-and-a-half game lead over the idle Ravens in the AFC North, it was certainly effective.
"I hope these guys don't start drinking the Kool-Aid," Crocker said with a smile. "Just stay with the grind."