CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 27: Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks for an open receiver against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on November 27, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Tyler Barrick /Getty Images)
If Sunday dictated anything, it's that the Bengals are not a playoff team right now. Those were the words I had written as my introduction for the post-game recap that was being formulated early in the third quarter. You can't blame me. It was this week as it is every week, awfully depressing early with an uncontainable joy watching plays being made when the game is on the line.
Consider that in the second quarter, featuring a meltdown by Cincinnati's offense that posted only 20 yards on 11 plays resulting in two punts and a lost fumble that led to Greg Little's three-yard touchdown to give the Browns a 10-point lead, much of the overall depression featured a defense that allowed itself to be handled easily by Cleveland's offense recording seven second-quarter first downs alone.
Blame was vast. Andre Smith struggled mightily against Jabaal Sheard while A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham were largely non-factors. Nate Clements looked slow and old against a faster and young Greg Little. Colt McCoy's scrambles were a great source that depression with the perfect example coming in the third quarter. Third and 18 from the Browns 40-yard line midway through the third quarter, Colt McCoy looks downfield before taking off and picking up 20 yards on a scramble that would eventually give the Browns a 10-point lead. Playoff teams don't allow an opposing quarterback to scramble 20 yards on third and 18.
But then again, playoff teams tend do exactly what the Cincinnati Bengals did. They win. No matter how they do it, no matter when it happens, no matter who does it, the Bengals win.
Playoff teams that are playing below their best, rise against teams that they're supposed to beat when it matters the most. After Phil Dawson converts a 54-yard field goal to give the Browns a 10-point lead, Andy Dalton launches consecutive passes for 57 yards to A.J. Green (35 yards) and Jermaine Gresham (22 yards), who scored the touchdown late in the third quarter reducing Cincinnati's deficit to three points.
On the Browns' ensuing possession during the first play of the fourth quarter, Geno Atkins lays a shoulder into Colt McCoy's gut just after the quarterback unleashes a floater towards the right sidelines where Reggie Nelson hauls in the pop-up in right field. Cincinnati tied the game following a 40-yard Mike Nugent field goal, capping off a nine-play, 32-yard drive, thanks to a crucial 15-yard Jermaine Gresham reception on third and nine.
Cincinnati's defense would go on to force consecutive three and out possessions before forcing Phil Dawson to convert a 55-yard field goal that fell well short and well left, giving Cincinnati the football at their own 45-yard line with just under two minutes remaining and two timeouts in their pocket. If you don't mind spoilers, they wouldn't need them.
And once again another crucital third down conversion arrives. With 1:08 remaining in the game on third and eight, Andy Dalton throws a prayer to A.J. Green running a vertical down the middle of the field. As he does every time, Green jumps over everyone and cuts towards the right sidelines before he's pushed out of bounds two yards short of the goalline. Benson ran the football three times in obvious clock-killing runs before Mike Nugent converts the game-winning 26-yard field goal.
Cincinnati heads to Pittsburgh next week with a 7-4 record after winning 23-20 in a critical game for the Bengals as the team continues solidifying the argument that they belong in the 2011 NFL playoffs.