Quarterback Andy Dawson went from awful to awesome as the Bengals stormed back to beat the previously unbeaten Buffalo Bills.
Cincinnati - That “Bam! Bam! Bam!” you heard at Paul Brown Stadium late Sunday afternoon were three points on the scoreboard for the Cincinnati Bengals and three nails in the coffin of the Buffalo Bills.
Mike Nugent’s 43-yard field goal as time expired gave the Bengals an improbable-but-not-impossible 23-20 comeback triumph over the previously undefeated Bills in front of 41,142 spectators — a record low for a regular-season game at PBS, which opened in 2000.
The victory galvanized a young team that improved to 2-2 to stand tied with Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the AFC North Division. But will this big win over the 3-1 Bills be hefty enough to excite Queen City fans, who have largely ignored their Cardiac Cats?
“We have to hang together,” head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We have to stay focused and not lose sight of our goal each and every day. This is a game of making plays. In the first half, we did little to aid our cause and continued to shoot ourselves in the foot. We were able to gather ourselves at halftime and go back out there and get on point. It was a hard-fought game and we made plays in the second half. We sit here feeling pretty good about it right now.”
Everywhere Lewis looked, he found heroes. There was tailback Cedric Benson and wide receiver A.J. Green. There was tight end Jermaine Gresham and running back Brian Leonard. There was middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and the one-two defensive punch of tackle Geno Atkins and end Michael Johnson.
But the two men who separated themselves were quarterback Andy Dalton and Nugent, the seven-year veteran kicker from Ohio State and Centerville High School.
Dalton went from awful to awesome as the Bengals snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Bills. The last time the Bengals had defeated Buffalo was the AFC title game, 21-10, on Jan. 8, 1989, at Riverfront Stadium.
Dalton was 7 of 20 passing for 116 yards in a first half that included two interceptions that helped the Bills claim a 17-3 halftime lead. But he rebounded strong in the second half, going 11 of 16 for 188 yards. He fired a 17-yard TD pass to Gresham that pulled the Bengals within four (17-13), and then scored on a 3-yard quarterback draw to tie the score at 20 with 4:09 remaining.
“This game was a tale of two halves,” Dalton said. “We didn’t play very well offensively in the first half. Coming out of halftime, we knew we just had to stick together and play as a team. We were hurting ourselves. They weren’t doing anything to stop us. It was just a penalty here and there, and everyone took turns. We got rolling and got some momentum going. We executed a lot better and we did what we needed to do to win this game.
“In the second half, we had really good tempo up front. We were getting in and out of the huddle really well, and we did some really good things.”
Benson ran 19 times for 104 yards; Gresham caught four passes for 70 yards; and Green was a human highlight reel with four catches for 118 yards. Green had receptions of 58 and 40 yards, making him the first Bengal with two catches of 40 or more yards in the same game since Eddie Brown on Dec. 17, 1988.
The Bills came in averaging a league-best 37.7 points a game, but the Bengals’ third-ranked defense — led by Maualuga (11 tackles) along with Atkins and Johnson, who shared a sack — held Buffalo to 273 yards while Cincinnati’s offense cranked out 458 yards.
With the score tied at 20, one of the Bengals’ biggest plays came on third-and-three at Cincinnati’s 43 with 0:52 remaining. Dalton scrambled for two yards, but the replay assistant challenged the ruling and the play was reversed, giving Dalton a 3-yard gain and a first down.
Leonard caught a 15-yard pass, and then ripped off a 14-yard run, setting up Nugent’s heroics. Nugent’s game-winning field goal was his first walk-off home run since 2007 when, as a member of the Jets, he beat the Steelers on a 38 yarder.
“Two and two sounds and feels way better than one and three,” Nugent said. “Winning a game at home is big. We played a good team today and hopefully we can remember this feeling and take it with us next week.”
A year ago, the Bengals didn’t post their third victory until Dec. 19, 2010. They can win their third game of 2011 at Jacksonville on Oct. 9.
“No matter how euphoric we feel, these Mondays after games like today are important for us to keep getting better,” Lewis said. “We have to get in here and look at the tapes. We have new guys, young guys, and guys that are constantly getting better, and they are all learning to understand it together.”
(Chick Ludwig hosts the “Monday Morning Quarterback” show on Mondays from 6-9 a.m. through Jan. 2 on Fox Sports 1360 (WSAI-AM). Follow Ludwig on Twitter @ChickLudwig)