Cincinnati — On a day Andy Dalton didn't have his best stuff, the Bengals still had the best player on the field.
Because Dalton has yet to find a pass A.J. Green can't catch, the Bengals — as imperfect and surprising as they might be — keep winning and keep inching closer to the playoffs.
Their latest trick came Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals trailed most of the game and were behind by 10 points at two different stages of the second half. They rallied with the help of an interception and with style as Green snagged a high pass over the middle and turned it into a 51-yard gain that got the Bengals all the way to the Browns' 2-yard line.
It set up the winning field goal with 38 seconds left in what became a 23-20 victory, the Bengals' fifth after trailing in the fourth quarter. All 11 Bengals games have been decided in the final minutes, and a couple of rookies have been instrumental in one of the NFL's surprise teams coming out on the winning side seven times.
"We don't get rattled," Green said.
The Bengals had lost two straight to division rivals — at home to Pittsburgh and last week at Baltimore. Cincinnati played that game without Green, who injured his knee early in the Pittsburgh loss and begrudgingly sat out last week to let it heal. These Bengals are hoping and planning to play until January, and to maintain their grip on a potential wild-card spot, they needed to win Sunday.
Which means they needed Green, and he certainly delivered. The game's signature — and sealing play — was a high throw over the middle that forced Green to leave his feet to snag at the Browns' 30. He showed no signs of any knee injury as he looped around and almost outran three Browns pursuers to the 2. Green said he could have scored but didn't want to put the knee at risk.
He certainly didn't play like a guy who was worried about the knee. His 35-yard catch late in the third quarter set up a Bengals touchdown that brought the Bengals within three points, and the Browns spent much of the day playing their safeties deep to keep Green in check.
"I'm young," Green said. "I heal fast."
After the game, Dalton walked smiling through the Bengals locker room when a team employee congratulated him on another successful rally.
"That's what we do," Dalton said.
And it helped the Bengals maintain a one-game lead on the Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans for what would be the AFC's second wild-card spot. The Bengals still face road games with Pittsburgh and St. Louis and home games with Houston, Arizona and Baltimore. It's possible the Bengals could make the postseason without winning one of the division games, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is counting on his rookies to keep performing and progressing.
"We still have to play better," Lewis said. "But we battled and found a way today."
Green's only catch in the season opener against the Browns was a 41-yard touchdown on a quick snap that caught many Browns defenders off guard and, in some cases, still in the huddle. That pass came from backup QB Bruce Gradkowski, who was playing after Dalton suffered a wrist injury. Dalton has played every snap — and won six games — since. He hasn't been perfect, but he has successfully diagnosed matchup problems that Green and athletic tight end Jermaine Gresham have caused for opposing defenses and hasn't been afraid to let it rip.
"You just put it around (Green) and he makes plays," Dalton said.
Green finished Sunday's game with three catches for 110 yards. Dalton finished 21-of-31 passing for 270 yards despite a slow start that included an interception being overturned by penalty and fumbling on a sack that led to a Browns touchdown and a 17-7 halftime deficit.
"(Dalton) has the confidence to get us out of whatever situation we are in, yet he has an ability to forget, whether it be a positive or negative play, and move on to the next one," Lewis said. "I think that's a great quality that he has. He's been through a lot. He's handling a lot of stuff.
"It's fun to be around him. It's fun to watch him deal with it. He gets us into the right plays. He gets the ball to where it needs to be. If he's not quite right, he comes back the next play and gets it right. Whatever the situation, he's doing well."
Neither team wanted Sunday to be the Same Old Bowl. Previous Bengals teams have tightened up — and let down — against inferior opponents late in seasons. The Browns (4-7) are still playing for respect and respectability and were trying to win consecutive games for the first time since September. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was looking for his first AFC North Division win as a starter.
Same old for the Browns showed up in the form of dropped passes, those blown leads and one of the game's most reliable kickers not getting a fair shake at a winning field goal because of a botched snap.
Browns fans who have been miserably keeping score at home on such miscues for the better part of 13 years know that makes twice in two weeks that a significant Phil Dawson field-goal attempt hasn't had a chance. The first one, against the Rams, ended miserably because the snap hit a lineman's leg before getting back to the holder.
This time, with 1:55 left and Dawson set to try a 55-yarder, snapper Ryan Pontbriand basically rolled the ball back. Dawson, who had easily made a 54-yarder earlier in the game, was well short. And, three plays later — on third-and-8 — Dalton and Green got the Bengals to the Browns' 2.
Same old for these Bengals is becoming late-game drama — and success.
Dalton set the Bengals' rookie record with his 16th touchdown pass of the season Sunday, but he wants wins more than records. The Bengals go to Pittsburgh next week looking for a measure of revenge, a significant win and a chance to see Green against one of the league's best defenses for the full four quarters.
A couple of fourth-quarter interceptions sealed the Steelers' win in Cincinnati two weeks ago. Those were rookie mistakes — the kind Dalton can no longer afford to make and the kind a special talent like Green can help him avoid.
"They (Dalton and Green) are two special guys, they really are," Lewis said. "I told the team their rookie year is over. I told the team a week ago, they are done (being rookies). We're counting on them like veteran players, and that's what we need down the stretch."