CINCINNATI -- Coming off two straight close losses in overtime, the Cincinnati Bengals were already teetering.
Then, after the first 12½ minutes of Sunday’s game against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, they were staggering.
The Browns, who had really closed the gap on them in the AFC North, were leading, 13-0. The margin would have been much more except for the fact the Browns failed to take advantage of two excellent scoring opportunities, having to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after having a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 2 and a first down at the Cincinnati 14.
The Browns were doing nearly everything right. Cincinnati was doing almost nothing right.
The Bengals were in danger of losing much of everything – their cushion in the division -- they had worked so hard through the first half of this season to get. As such it, it was their moment of truth for 2013.
And the truth is that Cincinnati is still in control of the division.
Using special teams and defense to score a team-record 31 points in the second quarter while holding the Browns scoreless, the Bengals rallied to win, 41-20, and strengthen their hold on first place.
The Bengals improved to 7-4, two games ahead of the Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, all of whom are tied for second at 4-6. Had the Browns won, they would have crept to within a half-game of Cincinnati. Now the Bengals are 2½ games ahead of the entire pack.
“Again, we showed great resilience and perseverance and the ability to come back,” Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said. “The defense and special teams gave us a lift.”
It began on the next-to-last play of the first quarter when outside linebacker James Harrison, a product of Akron Coventry High School and Kent State, intercepted a
Although the score was nullified by an illegal-block-above-the-waist penalty, and Harrison’s return wound up being shortened to nine yards, the play swung the momentum.
“That jump-started us,” Lewis said. “We just needed to get out of the first quarter and into the second quarter.”
And when the Bengals did, the fun began.
They got the touchdown anyway on the first play of the second quarter when quarterback Andy Dalton threw 25 yards to tight end Jermaine Gresham to make it 13-7.
“Once we got those points, it turned things around,” Lewis said.
The Bengals’ Shawn Williams partially blocked
Five plays later, Dalton threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and the Bengals were on top 14-13.
Two Cleveland possessions later, the Bengals fully blocked a Lanning punt, and safety Tony Dye, in his first game as a pro after being promoted from the practice squad on Saturday, returned it 24 yards for a 21-13 lead. It was Cincinnati’s third touchdown in a span of 10:17.
“It’s a dream come true to be in your first NFL game and score a touchdown,” Dye said.
For the Browns, though, it was a nightmare. And it wasn’t over.
Just two minutes later, outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict scooped up a fumbled pass reception by running back
Then with time running down in the second quarter, Adam Jones returned a punt 27 yards to the Cleveland 32, setting up ex-Ohio Stater Mike Nugent’s 41-yard field goal with one second left to make it 31-13.
“The special teams, what they did all day was tremendous,” Lewis said.
Actually, what the Bengals did overall in the second quarter was tremendous, scoring 31 points in a stretch of 14:51 in the quarter.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Harrison said.
Not many people have.
And it was certainly needed. Though Lewis wasn’t going to go there just yet, at the end of the year, he and the Bengals might look back at that quarter as the time when they got their season back on track.
“We’ve got to win games now,” said Lewis, whose club heads to its bye week. “It’s an urgent month for us, and this was an important game.
“We’ve got five games left (against San Diego, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Baltimore, in that order), and we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Added Harrison, “At this point of the season, you’re just looking to control your own destiny. And now we control our own destiny.”