Nobody said it would be easy. For the Cincinnati Bengals, seeking to secure a winning season and keep their playoff hopes alive, a win at home today against the Arizona Cardinals was mandatory.
Cincinnati came out like a team ready for the playoffs, taking a 23-0 lead into the fourth quarter behind a suffocating defensive effort. Their youth showed in the fourth quarter, however, as two turnovers and defensive lapses allowed the Cardinals to be in position to tie the game by game's end.
Ultimately, though, it was the Cardinals gifts that proved to be the difference as the Bengals held on for a 23-17 victory.
The Bengals won the toss and customarily deferred, putting the defense on the field first. Larry Fitzgerald showed his outstanding hands, picking up an early first down, but it was followed by a Domata Peko sack. Skelton then led his receiver too much and the ball found the hands of Rey Maualuga, setting the Bengals up at the Arizona 23.
Andy Dalton hit Jermaine Gresham on a crossing route to move the ball into the red zone at the Cardinals 12. Once again the Bengals bogged down in the red zone, but Dalton threw behind AJ Green on third down. Mike Nugent connected from 24 yards and Cincinnati led 3-0.
The Bengals defense was stout again on the next Cardinals drive, forcing a three and out after Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson sacked John Skelton for the second time. Adam Jones, returning punts for the first time since the Seattle game, danced around but only got to the Cardinals 49. Still, the Bengals offense would set up again in Arizona territory.
Andy Dalton went up top to AJ Green right away. Patrick Patterson used his arm to keep Green away from the ball and the Bengals were down to the Cardinal 28. Andy Dalton scrambled for a first down to the Cardinals 17, giving them their second red zone trip in as many possessions. This time they converted. Andy Dalton found Jermaine Gresham who outfought the defender for the ball and the Bengals were up 10-0.
The Cardinals got out near midfield on their next possesion when Jonathan Fanene got into the sack game. That put Arizona in a third and long situation again and they were forced to punt.
A Jermaine Gresham screen pass and Andy Dalton run got the ball out near midfield again. Bernard Scott then tore off two runs to take the ball into Arizona territory as the first quarter came to a close. AJ Green opened up the second quarter with yet another amazing catch taking the ball down to the Arizona 21. That catch took AJ Green past Cris Collinsworth for most receiving yards for a Bengals rookie. Dalton couldn't find him in the corner of the end zone on third down though and Mike Nugent was forced to attempt a field goal from 35 yards out which he pushed right.
After forcing another punt, the Bengals offense was quickly back on the Cardinals side of the field. A pass to AJ Green and a roughing the passer penalty put the ball on the Arizona 34. The drive stalled there and Nugent was on again. He again pushed it left this time from 48 yards and the score remained 10-0.
The Bengals defense meanwhile continue to keep the pressure on Cardinals QB John Skelton. He threw his second pick on the next drive after being flushed from the pocket. Nate Clements set up the Bengals offense once again in prime field position at their own 42. Andy Dalton broke a quarterback sneak on a third and one and the ball was on the Arizona 32. After getting back into the red zone, Jerome Simpson scored one of most amazing touchdowns ever seen. Catching a flare pass from Dalton at the 15, he raced toward the pylon and somersaulted over a Cardinals defender, doing a full flip in the air and landing on his feet. Most importantly, the score gave Cincinnati a 17-0 advantage.
After holding the Cardinals to another three and out, the Bengals got the ball back with just under two minutes left and the ball on their own 41. Dalton found Ryan Whalen to convert one third down and then Jermaine Gresham down the middle to get inside the 30. Dalton then looked for Whalen again on a fly pattern which drew a pass interference call, putting the ball at the Arizona 12. Dalton was sacked, however, and they had to settle for a Nugent field goal attempt. This time he connected from 41 yards and the Bengals took a 20-0 lead into the locker room.
Cincinnati had put together their best half of football of the season at just the right time. They dominated in every phase of the game, outgaining Arizona 218-56 and forcing two turnovers. Even so, the Bengals missed two field goal attempts and again failed to take advantage of several red zone opportunities. All that was needed was another good half and their playoff hopes would remain intact.
The Bengals opened the second half with the ball and continued being aggressive. AJ Green ran on a reverse for 22 yards to get the ball out near midfield and continue to put pressure on Arizona's defense. Arizona held, however and forced Kevin Huber's first punt of the day. Huber hung the ball up sky high and didn't give Patrick Peterson an opportunity to return.
The Cardinals were making progress on their first drive of the half until John Skelton threw his third pick of the day, this time to safety Reggie Nelson. Nelson returned it to the Arizona 48 and the Bengals were on the Cardinals side of the field again. The Bengals went nowhere, however, and were forced to punt again. The Bengals defense continued its pressure on the next Cardinals' possession with Jonathan Fanene getting his second sack and the team's fourth.
The Bengals caught a break when an Andy Dalton pick was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty. A horse collar tackle penalty later in the drive moved the ball to the Arizona 21. The drive stalled and Mike Nugent drilled his third field goal from 32 yards to put the Bengals comfortably in front 23-0. That's the way the third quarter would end as the Bengals defense tightened its grip on the Cardinals.
The Cardinals finally dented the end zone when Skelton found Larry Fitzgerald on a crossing route that he took 30 yards for a score. It was Fitzgerald's first catch since the opening play of the game. The Bengals were still up 23-7.
Cedric Benson's fumble on the ensuing drive set up Arizona at the Bengals 39, their first break of the day. Skelton found Andre Roberts inside the red zone and then Fitzgerald down to the Bengals 3 yard line. Skelton then rolled right and found TE Jeff King and the Cardinals were a two point conversion away from being within one score. The Bengals got pressure on him though and forced him to cough up the football. Cincinnati led by 10 at 23-13 but the win seemed anything but sure.
The Cardinals defense held on another three and out but Kevin Huber got off a huge punt that was well coverd by Jeromy Miles who brought down Doucet at the Arizona 21. Arizona had 6:12 on the clock and had to score. A personal foul on Geno Atkins after a completion moved the ball into Cincinnati territory. Somehow Larry Fitzgerald got wide open behind the Cincinnati defense and took it down to the one yard line. The Cardinals fumbled on the next play, however. They were able to recover, but forced the ball back to the 11 yard line. Chris Crocker knocked down a pass in the end zone intended for Fitzgerald. Jay Feely knocked through a 29 yard field goal to cut the lead to 23-16.
Cedric Benson then took the game from uncomfortable to downright scary when he fumbled on the first snap, setting Arizona up on the Bengals 22 yard line. Cincinnati held on first and second down and the two minute warning arrived with the Cardinals facing a third and seven. Nate Clements blew up a wide receiver screen to Fitzgerald and the Cardinals faced a fourth and five. Skelton had Early Doucet wide open with the Bengals in an all out blitz. Doucet fell down and the ball fell helplessly to the Paul Brown Stadium turf.
The Bengals still couldn't finish it off after Nate Livings committed a bone-headed personal foul that pushed the ball back 15 yards and stopped the clock without the Cardinals having to use a timeout. The Bengals were force to punt and the Cardinals had one last shot with 48 seconds left and no timeouts left from their own 40.
Arizona moved the ball down to the 15 yard line of Cincinnati, but the clock ran out on their final play.
It was much closer than it had to be, but Cincinnati survived, meaning that next week's game against Baltimore will have playoff implications. The second half defensive collapse has to be concerning, however, especially in light of a similar fate two weeks ago against Houston. The Bengals led 23-0 and were dominating going into the fourth quarter. Then the Cardinals started employing crossing routes and found all kinds of holes in the Bengals' defense. After managing only 56 yards in the first half, the Cardinals ended up outgaining Cincinnati 316-301.
The offense deserves much criticism in the comeback as well. The normally dependable Cedric Benson has now put the ball on the ground five times in the past two weeks. Additionally, the Bengals interior line continues to struggle, not giving any push for the running game and allowing pressure that got several Andy Dalton passes batted down. The red zone failures in the first half were also part of the formula that kept Arizona in the game.
The Bengals can go home to enjoy Christmas though, confident that they'll still be playing meaningful football next Sunday at PBS. With the Gianst beating the Jets, Cincinnati is now in control of their own destiny.
For this young team, they're now in uncharted waters, contending for a playoff spot in the season's final week. They've guaranteed a winning season, now it's time for them to guarantee a post season.
Tags: AJ Green, Andy Dalton, Arizona Cardinals, Cedric Benson, Cincinnati, Cincinnati Bengals, Football, John Skelton, Jonathan Fanene, Larry Fitzgerald, Nate Clements, NFL