Wild escape leaves Bengals with breathing room

Marvin Lewis furiously attempted to get the attention of anyone in a black-and-white striped shirt. Anyone. There was about 30 seconds left to play in regulation but the Bengals’ 14-13 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was precarious. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown had completed a 21-yard pass to Louis Murphy to the Bengals 20-yard line, well within range of a game-winning field goal.

Lewis went red to get head referee Bill Leavy’s attention, costing his team a time out but winning a game in the process, a win that gained the Bengals some breathing room in the AFC North.

The Buccaneers had 12 players on the field for McCown’s completion and Lewis wanted the play reviewed. He threw his red challenge flag, even though he’s not allowed to challenge any calls in the final two minutes of a half. Still, whatever he needed to do to get Leavy’s attention he was going to do. Throwing the flag cost the Bengals one of their two remaining timeouts but it also gave the replay official time to buzz down to the field and stop play.

The end result is that the completion was wiped out, the Buccaneers were pushed back five yards and they never got a chance at that field goal. The Bengals escaped with their eighth win of the season on a day in which their three division rivals couldn’t. It was a quirky way to win. There were plenty of chances for the Bengals to lose but for whatever reason they didn’t.

Instead of an embarrassing loss to a two-win team, they now have a 1½-game lead on Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh with four games left to play and the Steelers coming to Paul Brown Stadium next Sunday.

"The only thing that matters is us," said Lewis on the post-game radio show with analyst Dave Lapham. "We’ve got to go home and regroup and get ready and have a big game against Pittsburgh this week."

Andy Dalton spent Saturday night up close and personal with the flu. He needed to get extra intravenous fluids before the game. It showed in the first half when he threw three interceptions, including one on the first play from scrimmage and one in the red zone, but the Bengals trailed just 10-7 at the half. The DayQuil must’ve kicked in during the second half because Dalton came back to complete 12 of 16 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown after halftime.

"I’ve felt better," said Dalton. "As the game went on, I started to feel better but it was a long night for me (Saturday) night. I was going to try to play through it regardless, so it is what it is and hopefully I won’t have to deal with that anymore.

"I’m not going to make any excuses for the way things started out. It obviously isn’t something you want to deal with, but I’m not saying that’s the reason the way things came out the way they did."

The Bengals did some curious things in this game. Clock management has also been a troublesome issue for Lewis, and for the second straight week the Bengals didn’t handle a possession in the closing minutes of the first half well. Cornerback Terence Newman’s first interception of the season with 46 seconds left in the half gave the Bengals the ball at Tampa Bay’s 40-yard line. They had all three timeouts available but chose not to use one after Dalton completed a 4-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu on first down.

Lewis said he didn’t want a timeout called because he didn’t want to give the Buccaneers a chance to lineup and get set. The problem was the Bengals never seemed to get set themselves and Dalton ended up throwing an interception.

After taking a 14-10 lead with 2:04 left in the third quarter on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to A.J. Green, the Bengals attempted an onside kick. Kicker Mike Nugent tried to drag the ball with him but the Buccaneers were wise to the attempt and recovered at the Bengals’ 31-yard line.

"Anytime you do anything like that, you’ve seen what we perceive is an opportunity to do that," said Lewis. "It’s not just we’re just going to do it. We’re going to do it because of the look."

The look cost them three points, a credit to the defense that it didn’t give up the lead despite the short field as it continues its resurgent play. Still, the three points were a factor in how the final drive played out. The Buccaneers didn’t need a touchdown, just a field goal. Getting in field goal range is easier than getting into the end zone.

Especially when you’re playing with an extra man on the field.

Cincinnati’s assistant coaches in the press box saw the Buccaneers with 12 men. They communicated the fact to Lewis, but Lewis couldn’t get an official to look at him as he tried to call time out. So he threw the flag. If the Bengals hadn’t had a time out to give the move would’ve cost the Bengals 15 yards. Instead, the play was negated and cost Tampa Bay five yards.

"That’s how 2-10 football teams play. Found a way to lose it at the end," said Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, who took blame for the mistake. "When you make dumb, stupid penalties like that throughout the game it ends up biting you at the end, which it did. Again we’re a 2-10 team."

Maybe that’s why the Bengals won this game, why they are now 8-3-1, in first place in the AFC North with as much breathing room as they’ve had in more than a month and why they are still in the hunt for a possible first-round playoff bye. They weren’t good on Sunday but they were good enough to get a third win on the road in as many weeks, something that’s never happened before in franchise history.

"A win’s a win. We didn’t play really well. We had a lot of key plays that we should have converted on — including myself," said Sanu, who had just two catches for 19 yards and dropped a would-be third-down conversion pass in fourth quarter that could’ve made the ending of the game much less dramatic. "We’ve just got to get those out of our system and just be able to bounce back this week and play better than we did this Sunday."