ST. LOUIS — It was almost tough to tell if the Bengals had won or lost Sunday's game at the Edward Jones Dome.
Assistant public relations director P.J. Combs handed out a stat sheet that said they did, but with two games left against a 7-7 Cardinals club as hot as the Arizona desert with four straight wins, and the big, bad Ravens, the Bengals knew this stat sheet wouldn't do.
"We got away with one," running back Cedric Benson said on a day he was stopped three times on third or fourth-and-one.
And offensive coordinator Jay Gruden looked grim for a man that had just sired the most prolific rookie passing combination of the young century.
"Despite the win, we're a little bit disappointed the way we played," Gruden said. "You think back to those (short-yardage) plays and in order for us to be successful later on in games we have to convert those third-and-ones and fourth-and-ones running the ball. We got the looks we wanted, they were just better than us on that play. That's not good enough."
The Bengals got their red-zone gaffes in check long enough to punch in two in a span of six minutes late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter after going four weeks and seven straight first-and-goals without scoring a touchdown.
When running back Bernard Scott scored on a one-yard run with 12 seconds left and Benson scored from four yards out with 9:16 left in the game when he ran over cornerback Josh Gordy, it marked the just the third game since Oct. 16 the Bengals had scored a rushing touchdown inside the 5.
Without fullback Chris Pressley and his backup Brian Leonard, Gruden said that was part of the reason he put a pair of 300-pound players in the game when the Bengals were on the 1, backup right tackle Dennis Roland and nose tackle Domata Peko. He had Roland as the extra tackle and Peko as the fullback and Scott followed Whitworth and Roland.
"Looking for some big bodies in there to move some people," Gruden said. "Peko did a good job on some of those plays last year."
But on third-and-one and fourth-and-one from the Bengals 42 at the end of the half and with Roland as the extra tackle, the Bengals couldn't move anyone. On the first drive of the second half and facing a third-and-one from the Rams 23, Benson couldn't get it with rookie tight end Colin Cochart as the fullback .
"They played harder than we did. They wanted it more than we did," Benson said of the short-yardage snafus earlier in the game.
But the last time the Bengals had pounded it in from up close had been against the elite Ravens run defense back on Nov. 20.
"That goes to show you, it's not so much our opponents, but us," Benson said. "I don't think we've focused on it during the week as much as we may have needed to."
After they could manage just 3.2 yards per their 34 carries against the NFL's worst run defense, Benson thinks the Bengals are taking the running game for granted in "assuming it's always going to be successful," and seven offensive penalties had them reeling.
The most serious injury was wide receiver A.J. Green's separated AC joint in his right shoulder, but you would have thought there would have been some shredded Achilles with Gruden, Green and left tackle Andrew Whitworth all talking about shooting themselves in the foot.
"There aren't a lot of complete teams at this point," Whitworth said. "Everybody has week-to-week problems. The issue is hurting yourself and that's what we continue to do. We need an efficient game where we not only do good things, but there's not a whole lot of negative."
But the laundry list continues to grow. Seven of the season-high 11 penalties were on offense with four false starts (three by tight end Jermaine Gresham), holding calls on right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Anthony Collins, and a hands-to-the-face call on McGlynn.
But the Rams had 10 penalties for more yards in a game Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis warned his team during the week would be tightly called by ref Jerome Boger's crew. In the end, the Bengals kept their poise when the Rams were hit with an unsportsmanlike penalty and two unnecessary roughness calls in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Chris Chamberlain gave life to what proved to be the winning Bengals touchdown drive with a defenseless hit on Benson as a receiver and then two snaps later he was called for unnecessary roughness again at the end of Benson's longest run of the day, a 15-yarder.
"We knew going into this game that this officiating crew were amongst some of the higher ones at throwing penalties out there," said Rams running back Steven Jackson. "We just didn't play smart. We weren't heady about situations. Where the emotion of a football player comes in you have to be able to control that. The Cincinnati Bengals did a better job than us when that happened."
Whitworth was able to keep his wits about him on that same series when he got downfield blocking on wide receiver Andrew Hawkins's eight-yard reverse. He got tangled up with of the Rams defensive backs and got his helmet ripped off.
"As I went to dump him on the ground, he held on to the back of my helmet and ripped it off," Whitworth said. "I finished him 30, 40 yards down the field. When smaller guys want to engage, you've got to make them pay for it. For some reason he felt like he wanted to engage me. You've got to make him regret it."
With the crowd jeering, Whitworth waved his arms in the air as he walked back to the huddle calling for more.
"It's my job. Get the momentum of the offense and guys to realize that's how we have to play," he said. "It's my job to play that way."
The one guy on offense the Bengals have been able to rely no matter the penalties or the goal-line problems has been Green. His 55-yard catch down the middle and his 30-yard catch-and-run screen in the first quarter showed how devastating his speed is. With the Rams tilting their coverage to him and the Bengals still unable to run it, Gruden had lined Green up all over. In both slots and he even started one goal-line play in the backfield before deploying.
Which is how Green got 115 yards on six catches to reach a batch of milestones. With 61 catches for 1,006 yards, he and quarterback Andy Dalton passed the rookie pair of Tim Couch and Kevin Johnson in 1999 for production. He's the first NFL rookie with 1,000 receiving yards since New Orleans' Marques Colston in 2006 and he's four yards shy of breaking Cris Collinsworth's rookie yards record.
"The future of the Cincinnati Bengals is bright, that's for sure," Whitworth said. "But as for right now, we have to clean things up. We have to get things shored up where we won't hurt ourselves. That's the only thing stopping us right now."