BALTIMORE — So now we know the M&T in M&T Bank Stadium stands for Miracle Tease after Sunday's inexplicable and improbable 20-17 overtime loss for the 6-4 Bengals that has turned the AFC North intractable.
But lost in the last 10 minutes of a Hail Mary that carried the day (A.J. Green's catch of a tipped pass with no time left) and a Hail Mary that crashed (Giovani Bernard's reverse-the-field try on a screen that lost 11 yards in overtime and gave the ball to the Ravens at their 44) is another defensive masterpiece.
Wasn't it supposed to be the offense that was supposed to carry a battered defense without cornerback Leon Hall, two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga?
Wasn't the Bengals offense supposed to keep the defense off the field with a balance of run and pass that would keep quarterback Andy Dalton upright, and wouldn't Dalton take care of the ball and manage it just so?
Not Sunday. Not after the offense turned it over three times in the fourth game this season in Dalton's second straight three-interception game of the year as he got sacked five times and faced 14 third downs of seven yards or longer.
Instead, the defense got five sacks and three turnovers itself and stoned the Ravens on the fewest yards the Bengals have allowed in 63 games dating back to a Nov. 29, 2009 victory over the Browns. The Bengals had more penalty yardage in the first half (114) than the Ravens had yards (94) and Baltimore's final take of 189 yards was carved out of the Bengals making the Ravens running game worse than usual. With Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco buffaloed by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's range of different blitzes with a 60 passer rating, the Bengals held running back Ray Rice to 1.7 yards on 18 carries, somehow keeping him a yard under his season average.
"As far as the second half, you can't play any better on defense," said safety Chris Crocker. "We've got guys who fight. You know what to do and you can fight and that's half the battle. You just have to be able to put it together and Coach is doing a good job with that."
If you listened to Zimmer closely during the week, you could sense he enjoyed the challenges being issued in the face of the injuries and he delivered. The Bengals freed up backup middle linebacker Vincent Rey for the game of his life.
Why not? Rey is the quintessential Zimmer player. An undrafted guy with brains and will. Here's a guy that played 113 snaps in his first three seasons before he was pressed into service in the nickel package a few weeks ago when safety Taylor Mays went down and then had to take every snap the past two weeks without Maualuga.
And on Sunday he made a bid for AFC Defensive Player of the Week with three sacks, an interception, and a team-high 13 tackles. The last Bengal to get three sacks in a game, right end Michael Johnson in September 2012 in Washington, got the award.
"He was a monster out there today," Crocker said. "I like Vinny. Good guy. Good teammate. I just wish it had happened in a win."
Rey, elected by his mates as a special teams captain, was relentless Sunday. In one sequence he was shaken up making a play on a punt and then was in the defensive huddle. With Maualuga and Mays out, he and WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict are playing every snap and Rey held down the fort when Burfict left late in the game to get tested for a concussion and returned for the overtime.
"Sometimes I get down on myself, but we have leaders on this team who pick me up when I'm down and it's my responsibility to pick other guys up," Rey said. "I have to be a leader as well. At the end of the day I don't care how I do. I just want to win."
The Bengals rallied around Rey. Ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson had to come up big in Atkins's absence and they did. Johnson hit Flacco's arm as he threw and the ball fluttered into Rey's arms for his first NFL interception. Dunlap had two sacks, forced his league-leading fourth fumble, and added five tackles.
The Bengals took advantage of Baltimore's protection to free up Rey and they got big play up front by the committee that replaced Atkins. On passing downs, that ranged from Dunlap to tackle Brandon Thompson to end Wallace Gilberry to SAM linebacker James Harrison at times standing up in inside.
"Vontaze did a great job in there," Rey said. "When they were blitzing, I was able to come free a couple of times. The D-line did an awesome job."
Flacco did make one play in overtime that helped beat the Bengals. He escaped a sack and found tight end Ed Dickson for eight yards and Rice made his one play of the day, a 13-yarder on a dump pass underneath to set up the winning field goal.
Burfict, who came in leading the NFL in tackles, had a game that won't hurt his cause. The press box had him for 12 tackles, but it seemed like he had a lot more than that.
"We got downhill. We got into the offensive linemen before they could double-team our nose tackles. Me and Rey did a great job of getting downhill, eliminating double-teams, getting our blocks, and tackling Ray Rice," Burfict said.
Burfict offered his usual brand of don't-give-an-inch intensity. He disputed his late hit call on Flacco as he ran up the sidelines (the replay backed him up showing Flacco still going upfield when he hit him) and he claimed a Ravens coach pushed him on the sideline while vowing to ask the NFL about it.
Asked if he was targeted Sunday, Burfict shook his head.
"Not at all. I was on fire today," Burfict said. "There was nothing they could do. (Ravens right tackle) Michael Oher threw me down, and it was pretty late, I thought. I don't know why I didn't get the call. If he feels he has to do that … ."
The Ravens got the ball on three of their four scoring drives at their 47, 44 and the Bengals 11. The Bengals defense faltered only once, really, when it got taken on a flea-flicker and drew a 48-yard pass interference penalty on safety Reggie Nelson.
"They had something like (94) yards going into halftime," Burfict said. "The first penalty when they threw the ball deep – that hurt us and got them in the red zone. But other than that, I think we did a great job. There were a lot of calls that were kind of iffy. It was one of those types of games."
If the defense has lacked in one area this season, it is the ability to generate turnovers. Sunday was only its second game with at least three turnovers.
"I think if we have a short field, we have to do our job," said cornerback Terence Newman, whose interception set up the first Bengals touchdown. "If they're in field-goal range we keep them in field-goal range and limit the damage. We've got to get turnovers and put our offense in that position.
"Like I said last week when Geno went down, it gives somebody a chance to step up and make plays. I think our D-line played great and our secondary did pretty well."
But it wasn't enough. Not even after a career game by a gamer for his entire career.
"He was on today. At the beginning of the game, we were both a little sluggish," Burfict said of Rey. "I kept telling him, 'Let's go. Your play is going to come.' He's like my brother. He's helped me ever since I've been a Cincinnati Bengal. He's helped me with the plays because he's the smartest linebacker we've got right now. He just does a good job of anticipating plays and getting downhill."