When adversity arises in sports, it's up to the team as a whole to step up and make up for the loss of key players.
That was on display Sunday as several Bengals upped their games and had big performances to power Cincinnati to a 24-14 win in San Francisco. This was a game that had all of the necessary ingredients for a 49ers upset.
Andy Dalton was out with a broken thumb, leaving former fifth-round pick AJ McCarron to make his first NFL start. A.J. Green was dealing with a back issue that limited him to just 38 snaps and catching one pass. The offense as whole didn't do much while netting just 242 yards.
That meant the defense had to step up, and their two leaders made sure to bring their A-games as well. Geno Atkins has been playing like an All-Pro lineman all year, but he had one of, if not his best game of the season as he netted two sacks, three tackles for loss and two QB hits.
Fellow defensive tackle Domata Peko was very praiseworthy of Atkins' impact on Sunday and how he makes life easier for the rest of the defense.
"Geno is an animal. We are so blessed here in Cincinnati to have one of the best three-techniques in the game," Peko said. "He destructed a lot today. When he destructs like that, we are able to have guys like (Carlos) Dunlap getting some sacks today. A nose guard like me a, a first and second-down guy getting five sacks on the year. Geno sets the tone for our defense and he is a hell of a player."
Atkins also received a +5.1 Pro Football Focus grade for his performance, one of his highest marks of the season. It also was enough to keep him in the same breath as J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald as far as the best defensive lineman in the games goes. Per PFF:
If fans have missed the 2012 version of Geno Atkins (+5.1) over the past few seasons, they have to be happy to see him back to his top form in 2015. Outside of a lull surrounding the team's bye week this year, Atkins has been on a tear, and his +5.1 overall grade in this game further cemented his place among the NFL's interior defenders, behind only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt.
But Atkins wasn't the only standout player on Sunday. Vontaze Burfict has been slowly inching closer to being 100-percent after offseason knee surgery, and Sunday, he was as close to that as we've seen him in over a year. Burfict finished with just five tackles, but tossed in a sack, a tackle for loss, a QB hit and just his second interception of his NFL career.
That sack was also just the fifth career sack for Burfict, and it led to a 49ers punt that went just 18 yards and gave the ball to Cincinnati at the San Franciso 36-yard line.
And while that pick came off of a dropped pass, it was still a great effort and diving attempt to make a tough catch, especially for a linebacker:
Making that sack and pick even more important was the short fields they created, which allowed the offense to score touchdowns and go from leading 7-0 to 21-0 at halftime. While this was easily the biggest game of Burfict's season, he didn't think he or the rest of his defense played any differently knowing the offense was facing so much adversity.
"We just went into it like it was a regular game," Burfict said. "We have a lot of confidence in AJ. The defense is the other side of the ball and we just wanted to keep them to the lowest amount of points and hopefully the offense can keep scoring."
As for the interception, Burfict gave credit to his coaches for putting him in the right spot to make the play.
"Coach was making great calls putting us in great position," Burfict said. "We did a lot of film study on them knowing what was coming, anticipating and reacting to it."
For his effort, Burfict was tabbed as one of the top outside linebackers of Week 15 by Pro Football Focus. The effort Burfict and Atkins showed was exactly what needed to happen for the Bengals to pull out a road win in Week 15. They'll also need similar (if not better) efforts if they are to win in Denver on Monday Night Football.