Cincinnati got down 17-3 in both games. The team was demoralized after being unable to move the ball effectively. In Denver, the Bengals were just one-of-11 on third down, and their first three third-down attempts were third-and-one’s. They recovered two fumbles (one in the red zone) and settled for field goals both times.
Against the Bills, Andy Dalton spent the first quarter throwing everything high and too long and the second quarter throwing everything low and too short. He got picked off twice, once for a touchdown, and the Bengals couldn’t run the ball very effectively on the rare times they actually tried.
And then, in both games, after their first score of the second half was only another field goal to make it 17-6, the Bengals came alive. Suddenly, Andy Dalton looked like the Second Coming of Joe Montana, surgically picking apart the opposing defense, and moving his team downfield for two touchdowns that had them knocking on the door of a win. The Red Rifle looked like he had W’s in his sights.
But something different happened against Buffalo that didn’t against Denver: the defense made sure Dalton’s comeback was enough.
Cincinnati was down 10-3 at halftime against the Broncos. After a three-and-out, the Bengals’ offense needed some help. The defense responded by giving up a touchdown to make it 17-3.
After rallying the Bengals to a 17-15 deficit against the Broncos, Dalton watched as Denver quarterback Kyle Orton engineered a lightning-fast drive for a touchdown that culminated in a long touchdown pass when Bengals’ safety Chris Crocker knocked cornerback Nate Clements off the coverage and tackle by running into him. Now the score was 24-15, and Dalton wouldn’t be able to put up enough to complete the comeback.
But against Buffalo things were different. Trailing 17-3 at the half, Dalton got his team going in the third quarter. Cincinnati scored on four its five second-half possessions. But down two touchdowns, the defense had to keep the Bills off the scoreboard.
Dalton threw a pretty touchdown pass to TE Jermaine Gresham to make it 17-13. This was the point in the Denver game when the defense let it get away. Not this time. Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick engineered a 75-yard drive, but the defense stiffened and held the Bills to a field goal to make it 20-13.
That left the door open for Dalton to tie the game on a three-yard run. And with under four minutes to play and Buffalo at midfield, the defense came up with another huge stop on third-and-five. After that, it was up to Dalton to provide the heroics.
The defense did what everyone said it would have to do at the start of the season: keep the game close, cover up a rookie quarterback’s mistakes, and give the team a chance to win. The feat was made all the more spectacular by the fact that Buffalo came into the game ranked third in offense and first in points scored in the second half. Cincinnati held them to less than 300 yards total, three second-half points, and forced six three-and-outs on the Bills’ 11 possessions.
Defense wins championships according to the old adage. More importantly for Cincinnati, though, is that a defense can keep a rookie quarterback in the game and give him a chance to show why he was drafted.
Here’s hoping they can do it again next week in Jacksonville.