DETROIT – Rarely does a football game live up to the pre-game expectations. Sunday at Ford Field made up for all of those games that don’t.
The Bengals got a game-winning field goal by Mike Nugent on the final play for the second straight week, this time to beat the Detroit Lions 27-24. It was the identical score by which they beat Buffalo last Sunday but not all identical outcomes bring the identical feeling. The Bengals blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter at Buffalo before needing overtime to outlast the Bills.
The Lions are a different team. They entered the game with the same 4-2 record the Bengals had and were tied with Chicago for first place in the NFC North. They possess one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, the best wide receiver in the league in Calvin Johnson, and have a knack for making opposing offenses turn the ball over.
The Bengals were feeling rightfully proud after this win. This was a toss-up game looking at the matchups across both teams, and it was a toss-up game right up to the moment Nugent’s 54-yard field goal went through the uprights with no time remaining.
Andy Dalton finished with 372 yards passing with three touchdowns for the Bengals. Matthew Stafford also threw three touchdown passes for the Lions and finished the game with 357 yards passing, 15 yards fewer than Dalton. The last two passes that Dalton threw in the game, short throws to Dane Sanzenbacher and Giovani Bernard that set up Nugent’s field goal, gained a total of 15 yards.
“That’s what makes it so special to play on Sundays,” said wide receiver A.J. Green, who had six catches for 155 yards and a touchdown. “To be in a game like this with your brothers — you’ve went through a lot with three straight months of grinding and training camp — these are moments that you live for, you practice for and you get ready for. We’ve been a part of these games for the last couple of weeks. We didn’t flinch.”
It was the third straight win for the Bengals after losing 17-6 to the Browns in Cleveland. They weren’t feeling so good about themselves after that game but have since knocked off New England, Buffalo and Detroit — teams that are a combined 12-9 — in games that went down to the wire. They’ve won those games by a total of 13 points.
They are now 2-0 in a stretch of playing four out of five on the road. The only home game is next week against the 4-3 New York Jets.
Stafford was the first quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards against the Bengals since Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden did it in Week 2 last season, a stretch of 20 consecutive games. All three of his touchdown passes came on third down plays, including throws of 27 and 50 yards to Calvin Johnson in the second half. Johnson, who trains with Green in the offseason, matched his training partner with 155 yards on nine receptions.
Green and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald might be the only other receivers in the NFL who could’ve made the 50-yard catch that Johnson made over three Bengals defenders. Maybe.
“This was one of those heart checks,” said defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who blocked a field, made five tackles and was credited with two quarterback hits. Dunlap was in Stafford’s way as much as anyone could be without getting a sack.
“They made some plays, we had to come back and make a play. Calvin made a hell of a catch, A.J. went and made a hell of a catch, too. That’s the name of the game of football.”
The Lions dominated on third down, converting 13 of 19 chances, but the Bengals got stops on Detroit’s final two possessions to force punts. While the Bengals didn’t score after the first punt, they did move the ball enough to give punter Kevin Huber a chance to pin the Lions deep in their own end. Huber did exactly that with a 45-yard punt that was downed at the Detroit 6.
Detroit rookie punter Sam Martin couldn’t match Huber. He rushed his punt with 0:34 left to play and it went just 28 yards to the Bengals’ 49. Two passes and 15 yards later, Nugent won the game.
“You never know what play is going to win the game,” said linebacker Vinnie Rey. “He’s been punting well all season and our offense capitalized on it.”
It was a similar ending to last week’s win in Buffalo.
“That’s two consecutive weeks of solid punt, a defensive stop, a punt return, an offensive possession and a game-winning field goal,” said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. “You can’t get more team execution than every single phase doing what they needed to do to win the game.”