Everything about the fourth quarter Thursday night screamed that the Bengals were going to blow it. The Ravens rallied from a 28-7 deficit to make it a 28-23 game with 9:35 left in the fourth quarter, and the Bengals offense had slowed to a crawl.
We’ve seen this story before. Time and again, the Bengals have wilted under the spotlight.
But then Cincinnati went on a 10-play, 65-yard drive to set up a field goal and forced a turnover on the Ravens’ next possession to ice it. With the smooth finish and 34-23 victory, the Bengals are now 2-0 and will be in sole possession of the top spot in the AFC North, regardless how the rest of Week 2 shakes out.
The Bengals have started fast before. In 2015, the team rattled off an 8-0 record in the first half of the year, but the season ended just like every other since 1990 — without a playoff win.
Is this team different? There’s at a couple early indications that it might be.
Andy Dalton played well in primetime
That’s noteworthy considering he usually doesn’t come close to his best under the lights.
Entering Thursday, Dalton had a 5-13 career record in night games with a 79.3 passer rating. Give him a normal Sunday slate, and Dalton has a 59-31-1 record with a 91.1 passer rating.
So Dalton throwing for 265 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions is relatively surprising, especially when it came against the Ravens.
If one team has had Dalton’s number, it’s Baltimore. Prior to Thursday, he had completed 57 percent of his passes in 13 career games against the Ravens with 15 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. For the first time in his career, he now has more touchdowns than interceptions against Baltimore.
Dalton found A.J. Green for three touchdowns in the first 17 minutes of the game and then threw one more touchdown to Tyler Boyd before halftime. While the Bengals had a sluggish second half, Dalton rose to the occasion when the pressure was on and finished the game strong.
Nobody will fully trust him until he finally leads the Bengals to a win in the postseason, but this is a good sign that he might not crumble in the big moment again.
The defense has been good, but now it’s making big plays
Cincinnati has been in the top half of the NFL in points allowed in each of the last seven seasons, but has struggled to force turnovers as of late. In 2017, the Bengals had 14 takeaways, making them second-to-last in the category ahead of only the Browns, who had 13.
Just two games into the 2018 season, the Bengals have already forced five turnovers.
Second-round rookie Jessie Bates came up with one of them Thursday when he intercepted Joe Flacco to set up the first Cincinnati touchdown of the night:
Another rookie — third-round pick Sam Hubbard — got a sack that was one of four for a Bengals pass rush that harassed Flacco all night. One of those sacks forced a fumble in the fourth quarter to seal the game, and a pass rush by Carlos Dunlap earlier in the game caused Flacco’s other interception.
.@Carlos_Dunlap forces an errant throw... and it's PICKED by @36SLY36! #BALvsCIN— NFL (@NFL) September 14, 2018
: @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/geFMOhYMA0
The combination of Dunlap and Geno Atkins has been dangerous for years, but it looks like the duo is at its all-time best. That may be because the Bengals can throw Hubbard, and second-year pass rushers Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis into the mix.
If the Bengals can continue to force turnovers, a good defense may be on the verge of becoming a great one in Cincinnati.
But it’s still early
I hear you. It’s still Week 2 and you’ll believe in the Bengals when you see them win in January.
But you definitely thought they were blowing that lead at the end, right? It had “Cincinnati Bungles” written all over it, especially after a dropped interception and questionable penalty helped set up a Ravens touchdown with 8 seconds left in the first half.
Our resident Bengals fan had this to say after the Ravens cut the Bengals’ lead to five:
And, we're back to typical Bengals.— Rebecca Toback (@Rebecca_Toback) September 14, 2018
Need a TD here.
Without much working offensively and the Ravens defense buckling down, the Bengals found a way to get points and put the game away. It was impressive, and the type of win that makes you can’t help but wonder if Cincinnati is finally ready for something more than a trip — and loss — in the Wild Card Round.