CINCINNATI -- If the Cincinnati Bengals end up narrowly claiming their second straight AFC North title, they may have a little red flag and the hoarse voices of several assistant coaches to thank.
That's because, for now, their division championship hopes live on thanks in large part to a 12-man penalty that came with 12 seconds remaining in Sunday afternoon's 14-13 road win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If it hadn't been for a challenge flag -- one that NFL rules don't allow coaches to throw at that late stage of a game -- and the constant pleas of assistants to count the number of Buccaneers on the field, the division run would have taken a minor hit.
With seconds ticking by and the Bucs a field goal away from a walk-off stunner, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown had just completed a 20-yard pass to receiver Louis Murphy when, according to one Bengals player, the chatter on head coach Marvin Lewis' headset intensified.
Assistant coaches looking down from the press box were going ballistic. As Murphy started getting up at the end of the first-down completion that took him to the Bengals' 21-yard line and well within field goal range, coaches started screaming, telling Lewis to challenge the play, or to call timeout, or to just do anything that would get the referees' attention and cause them to look back at the play.
What did the eyes in the sky see?
Tampa Bay had too many men on the field.
"All of our coaches up there, they have a better eye for that stuff and they saw it right away," Bengals running back Jeremy Hill said. "That's kind of how Marvin threw the challenge flag. If they had gotten that next play off, no telling how the outcome would have been. They probably would have gotten a chance to kick a field goal for the game."
Hill said running backs coach Kyle Caskey told him he was among those who alerted Lewis about the Buccaneers' 12th man.
Rules state a team can't use a challenge within the final two minutes of a game. Any review-worthy plays that occur within that time frame automatically go to the replay booth, which will take a look at it. The penalty for challenging when there are no available challenges is a lost timeout. The good thing for the Bengals was that they had two timeouts left before the challenge flag was thrown, leaving them with a timeout to spare.
But that wasn't the most important part about the sequence. It was that the play was worthy of review.
"The refs were telling us they would take care of it," said defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who added that he and his teammates noticed an extra player on the field. "We could shout until we turn purple. If they don't call it in and review it, it's just one of those things that they miss."
After several minutes of the officials conferring with the replay booth, and after viewers at home witnessed CBS analyst and former Bengals player Solomon Wilcots count the 12 players on a replay of the play, the review came back favorable for the Bengals. Tampa Bay offensive lineman Oniel Cousins was on the field when he shouldn't have been. A regular substitution to give the Bengals an additional blocker in power situations, Cousins had been on the field often Sunday. But he shouldn't have been allowed to check in on this particular play, which featured two extra linemen who served as tight ends.
"We were trying to match up the personnel, and there was one too many," Lewis said.
Gilberry said it was the right call.
Once the penalty was applied, the Bengals forced two straight incomplete passes and held firm on Tampa Bay's desperate fourth-down try for the end zone. Without allowing the score, the Bengals were able to win, keeping them very much in the driver's seat in the most contentious division in the NFL. At 8-3-1, they lead the other three AFC North teams by a game and a half and currently hold the AFC's No. 3 seed. With help, they could even contend for the conference's top seed by the last of these next four games.
But none of that would have been possible if it hadn't been for the heady, alert eyes of Bengals assistant coaches.