While running back Cedric Benson wept with relief, left tackle Andrew Whitworth savored his showdown, and wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson gave thanks for their chances, the Bengals may have opened a window to the future while closing their longest losing streak in history at 10 games.
Sunday's 19-17 slugfest over the Browns at their namesake's home of Paul Brown Stadium not only harkened back to 2009, but it showed that the Bengals can win a game without wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens offering big-time contributions and that is certainly a possible scenario staring at them in 2011.
The Bengals did it against a bad Cleveland club. Can they do it in next week's 4 p.m. game at PBS against playoff-contending San Diego that is No. 1 in defense and No. 4 against the run? It's not exactly like it was Riverfest down here. There were no fireworks after failing to score 20 points for the fifth time in eight weeks, but 397 yards isn't a bad day's work against a Rob Ryan defense that held New England to 283 yards and the Falcons to 338. The Bengals also got more yards against Cleveland than the Saints, Steelers, Ravens and Jaguars.
Throw in a defense that got three sacks from rookies Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, a third-and-one stop from rookie linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy on the marauding Peyton Hillis, and big special-team efforts from rookie kicker Clint Stitser and second-year punt returner Quan Cosby, and this win two days before winter and the first since Sept. 26 had the whiff of spring.
With their record at 3-11, the Bengals are virtually assured of not getting the first pick in the draft, which would seem to indicate there won't be a new franchise quarterback coming to town. Carson Palmer, their old No. 1 pick who turns 31 next week, lifted his AFC North record to 22-14 and 6-0 against Cleveland at home with a mistake-free 90.7 rating on 14-of-23 passing for an unspectacular but steady 209 yards.
Palmer has been blissfully ignoring next season. The Bengals have not only not approached him about a pay cut for next season, but all indications are a pay cut isn't even on their agenda. So an ESPN.com story saying he wouldn't take a pay cut to stay in Cincinnati looks to be moot.
"I don't know what's going to happen next year," he said.
He was more excited about Monday morning's breakfast.
"They serve us (omelettes) at breakfast after wins, so I know guys are excited about getting some in the morning time," Palmer said.
Owens left with no catches after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter and The Ocho gamely gutted it out with two catches for 36 yards and none in the final two-and-a-half quarters as he hobbled in and out with a bad ankle.
"I prepare like a starter, so when T.O. went out it didn't feel any differently," said Caldwell, who caught a career-high 89 yards on four balls at Owens' flanker spot.
But the reason the Bengals were able to overcome those injuries was because they resorted to same rock-ribbed confidence in the running game that gave them last season's AFC North title. Benson had a season-high 31 carries and 150 yards, including a punishing skein in the third quarter in which he carried eight straight times for 37 yards that led to one of Stitser's four field goals, a 34-yarder, and a 16-7 lead with 3:33 left in the third quarter.
That came after a stretch in which Benson had carried 20 times just once in the previous six games and 25 times or more just twice all season. Last year he carried at least 25 times in six games.
A week ago Benson was in the dregs after carrying just eight times for 19 yards in Pittsburgh. He got 19 yards on his first three carries Sunday, which were on the first four snaps.
"It's like a week ago I was telling myself, 'You had your best season and worst season (back-to-back),' " said Benson as he unashamedly shed tears. "Just to come out and have a day like this, it's what you work for. I'm proud of what I do.
"The (offensive line) was just as hungry to pound the ball as I was. I remember earlier this week a couple of guys came up to me and said, 'Remember how good it felt last year?' They showed me pictures of me cutting off blocks. I knew we were looking forward to doing it and we got the opportunity to do it today."
Whitworth, the team's best lineman, rose to the occasion Sunday on a day the smashmouth game reentered the playbook. He played so well that Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, an incumbent Pro Bowler that trails Whitworth in the fan vote, told him after, "You played a hell of a game."
The 6-7, 335-pound Whitworth was pulling in front of Benson while anchoring a line that allowed no sacks. For good measure he sprung the biggest play of the day when he flattened safety Abram Elam on a wide receiver screen to Caldwell that netted 53 yards.
"That was for all the people who think I'm just a big guy that isn't athletic enough; running the safety down in space," said Whitworth with a big smile. "That all I'll ever be is a right tackle."
You can get a chicken-or-egg debate in the running game. The Bengals didn't go to it as often this year because they weren't as successful as evidenced by Benson's 3.5-yard average coming in. Or, the reason they weren't successful is because they didn't hang with it long enough because they were enamored with The Ocho and T.O.
Whitworth didn't want to debate.
"You're just excited about getting the opportunity. That's what we've been salivating for; just getting an opportunity to pound a team and we did it," Whitworth said. "We just continued to pound it. Whether it was second and six and second and eight, we were still pounding runs and not worrying about throwing it. I knew it was going to be a good day because you could see things we had we could exploit. We got a lot of opportunities. When you get a lot of opportunities, when the defense makes a play here or there, which they did a couple of times … but the next time we got the opportunity, we busted it for eight nine yards, the exact same play."
It appeared that there were more messages being sent at PBS than at the North Pole Sunday. A few hours after head coach Marvin Lewis started Caldwell and Simpson and didn't trot out The Ocho and Owens until the second play, a report surfaced on ProFootballTalk.com that the Bengals considered deactivating Owens for the last three games because of attitude in games and practice.
"By personnel," Lewis said as the reason for Caldwell and Simpson starting.
But Benson went out of his way to congratulate Caldwell and Simpson for their run blocking, a sore spot Lewis has had with his starting wide receivers for years now, particularly The Ocho. It was Caldwell's block on Elam that ignited Benson's 18-yard TD run against a club that came into the game allowing an NFL-low four rushing touchdowns.
"The corner was blitzing and I was on the safety one-on-one," said Caldwell, who sealed off the left perimeter exposed by the blitz. "Whatever I have to do to get him free. Whatever I have to do to help the team."
Simpson, playing in just his 11th game of a possible 46 in his three seasons, caught two balls for 30 yards, doubling his career catch total. Caldwell came into the game with just one catch in the last seven and had four.
"Both really played well. They stepped up into the roles that they were waiting to step into for three years now," Palmer said. "I'm just happy for them, and happy that they got the opportunity. It showed that they could do it. They weren't overwhelmed by anything in the game. They weren't nervous, but they were excited and happy to finally be on the field."
Benson has agonized this season about the lack of a running game. He was critical early about the reliance on the pass, but he has bit his tongue most of the season. On Sunday he gave credit to a saying he found on the wrapper of an energy bar.
"In an uncontrollable world, there must be self-control," Benson said.
Benson had plenty of that on his touchdown run. He got the ball to the left, leered at the line, hesitated, saw the corner blitz, kicked it in gear, and ran past it.
"You've got to do some dancing," he said.
His teammates were delighted for him and weren't surprised at the emotion.
"It's not been the year that he had expected, but it's great to see him with that smile on his face," Palmer said. "It was good to see him run with so much anger, so much power — and running with emotion too. I'm happy for him. I'm happy for the offensive line, because he had a great game, but the offensive line also had a really great day."
The guys on the line were also happy for Benson.
"This was the game Ced waited for all year," Whitworth said. "Ced works at it 24-7. I'm sure there's not a back in this league that works harder. He'd carry it 80 times if he had to."
On Sunday, 31 was enough to break the streak.