Second half response epitomizes Bengals season

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) scores a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 34-17.

Andrew Weber/Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — The Bengals have had 16 touchdown drives of 81 or more yards this season, including eight of at least 90 yards. None may have been as impressive as the one they turned in starting late in the third quarter Sunday against Baltimore.

The Bengals already had their AFC playoff spot secure whatever the result of the game but they had plenty for play for. There was the possibility of the No. 2 seed at stake. There was the shot at an undefeated home season, the first for the franchise since 1988. And they had some pride to play for. The Bengals are always playing for pride when it comes to games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Those franchises have been there and done that.

The Ravens, the defending Super Bowl champions, had fought back from a 17-6 halftime deficit to tie the score against the Bengals with five minutes, 13 seconds left in the third quarter. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had thrown an interception, which led to a Baltimore field goal. Punter Shawn Powell, Kevin Huber’s replacement of two weeks, somehow made the football turn at a 90-degree angle out of bounds for a 10-yard punt on the Bengals’ next possession, giving Baltimore possession at the Cincinnati 40.

The Ravens took advantage of the situation and scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Marlon Brown, followed by a Ray Rice 2-point conversion. The Bengals were flagged for holding on the ensuing kickoff, forcing them to start at their own 10.

They responded with a 12-play drive that Dalton capped off 91 seconds into the fourth quarter with a well-executed read-option 1-yard run over the left side that regained the lead for them for good in a 34-17 win.

Dalton threw four interceptions Sunday. It wasn’t his best game but it was a game that again showed his resiliency. It was a game that showed the team’s resiliency.

This one drive epitomized that resiliency.

"In the certain circumstances of the game, it was a great drive," said left guard Andrew Whitworth. "It meant a lot. The great thing about this football team is that you can’t pinpoint anybody in this locker room and say they’re the reason. That’s the epitome, to me, of a really strong football team."

Baltimore’s defense is a top-10 unit. Long time-consuming drives don’t happen that often against the Ravens, yet the Bengals faced just one third down on this drive. They ran the ball seven times for 20 yards. Dalton completed all five of his pass attempts to four different receivers for 56 yards, while another pass attempt produced a 14-yard pass interference penalty that set up the touchdown.

Dalton didn’t force any throws on the drive, taking the shorter routes available to him. Giovani Bernard caught two of those on screens that produced 36 yards.

"That was one of the best drives of the year," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "Andy made some great throws on that drive, we had some good runs. That was an impressive drive."

The Bengals have been their own worst enemy this season. The loss at Cleveland in Week 4 is the only game where the opponent beat them to the punch. The other four losses were games in which it was easy to pinpoint Cincinnati mistakes that led to missed scoring opportunities, opponents scoring points and eventual defeat.

This game could’ve fallen into that category.

It didn’t because of that 90-yard drive and how the defense responded after the Bengals regained the lead. The defense picked off Flacco three times, two by Dre Kirkpatrick that included a 21-yard touchdown, and forced a punt on a three-and-out all after Dalton’s touchdown run.

"We know the offense is going to handle their part and we’ve just got to make sure that we do everything we can to handle ours," said defensive end Michael Johnson. "That’s our job, regardless of where a team gets the ball. It’s to go out and stop them. We can’t worry about how they got it there. We just have to focus on doing our job as hard as we can and taking care of our business."

The Bengals will face San Diego (9-7) at home next weekend in the first round of the playoffs. As things turned out they remained the AFC’s No. 3 seed because New England beat Buffalo to finish 12-4, a game ahead of the 11-5 Bengals. But Cincinnati got its undefeated home regular season. It also got its pride.

"If you look at our season so far, the one hurdle we hadn’t cleared was playing a bad first quarter (and winning)," said Whitworth. "Baltimore, Miami, Cleveland — all of those games we had bad first quarters we lost. Those are our blemishes. Pittsburgh was the same way. This was the first game that we responded to all of that and said that’s not going to happen. It doesn’t matter how bad the first quarter is, we can still win this game and win it outright."

That they did.