ST. LOUIS — It sounded as if his teammates agreed with Bengals special teams ace Brandon Johnson after wide receiver Brandon Tate broke opened what was turning into a can of worms in the hollows of the Edward Jones Dome.
"He definitely gets my game ball," Johnson said after Tate's 56-yard punt return rustled the Bengals out of a 6-6 game late in the third quarter against the 2-12 Rams.
The Bengals were in trouble. They had just frittered away their last series with two false starts and a holding call, much like they had blown last week's game against the Texans, and it looked like this one was headed the same way with 7-7 beckoning and not the 8-6 they needed to stay in the playoff chase.
But here was cornerback Nate Clements racing off the edge on third-and-seven and sacking Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens to set up Donnie Jones's punt from the Rams 26 with 1:48 left in the third quarter.
And there was Tate catching it on a return left and following guys like Johnson and running back Cedric Peerman, tying his longest return of the season at the biggest moment. After he was hit out-of-bounds by safety James Butler to get 15 more, it set up running back Bernard Scott's one-yard run with 17 seconds left in the third quarter to break the tie and get the Bengals scoreboard-watching again on the way to a 20-13 victory.
It had not been very pleasant for the special teams of late. Tate fumbled a kickoff, there was a field goal blocked two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, and in Sunday's first half the Rams got three of their points on a partially blocked punt.
Tate, mired in the middle at 16th in the NFL with a 9.7-yard average, came into the game even trailling the man he replaced in Cincinnati, Denver's Quan Cosby, beginning the day 14th at 10.3.
But Tate carried Sunday.
"It was huge. It was flat in here before that," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, whose unit had been warned by coordinator Mike Zimmer the dome would offer some challenges.
"Zimmer said it was kind of a weird place to play. It was quiet. It had no atmosphere," Peko said. "You had to bring your own energy and feed off each other. We didn't have it until that play."
It's not the first time Tate has come off the waiver wire to rescue the Bengals in the second half:
Oct. 2 vs. Buffalo: Bengals trail, 17-6, early in the third quarter. Tate returns one 11 yards to his own 28 that sets up a touchdown drive that cuts the lead to 17-13 in a 23-20 victory.
Oct. 9 at Jacksonville: With the Bengals tied 13-13 and 11:19 left in the game, Tate takes one 19 yards that sets up Mike Nugent's 47-yard field goal that gives the Bengals a 16-13 lead in a 30-20 victory.
Oct. 30 at Seattle: With 3:22 left and the Bengals leading, 20-12, Tate goes 56 yards for the touchdown to seal it.
"They talk about momentum in high school and college," said Bengals running back Cedric Benson. "But momentum is everything in the NFL."
Tate's play down the left sideline was everything Sunday. And he admitted he's been trying to do what everybody has been advising him to do.
"Just hit it and go and the other 10 guys doing their job made it easy for me," Tate said. "I'm trying to get up the field and go."
Johnson gave him the thumbs-up.
"I think this time it was more him than the blocking," Johnson said. "He made just one cut and hit it. It looks like it hit home this time. Good job B-Tate."
Peerman said it was a basic "return left, a play we run all the time," as everyone sealed their guys inside, although Tate's quick cut made the play.
"Brandon did a great job setting it up and then hitting it at full speed," Peerman said. "Brandon's been getting better at that. That's what we need from him and he's producing."
Peerman says he and his teammates feel like Tate can pop one anytime anywhere.
"If we block it right and make the right move, we trust him back there," he said.
Told that the return not only kept the Bengals in the playoff hunt, but it gave him the club's single-season punt return yardage record with 496 yards, a total of 22 more than Cosby in 2009, it surprised Tate.
"Oh really? That's cool," Tate said. "That's a big goal for me … but with two games left I just want to go out and execute my job and trust the other 10 guys."
On this day, it was the other 52 guys that were so glad he executed.