CINCINNATI – There’s no easy way to explain how the Bengals can look their worst and still come out on top. The players themselves probably couldn’t describe how or why the Bengals have saved their best for last in almost every game this year.
But the team that used to be plagued by the inability to finish games has somehow turned into the team that finds a way to smother its opponent at the end. They did it to the Ravens, Colts and Falcons, and now they've added the Dolphins to that list.
The Bengals (4-1) played some of their worst football of the season against the Dolphins on Sunday, bad enough to be booed at home and trail 17-0 in the third quarter. But two inexplicable plays changed that narrative, and somehow the Bengals pulled out a double-digit win, defeating the Dolphins 27-17.
"The one thing they do is just keep playing, and you can't take that away from them," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "They just keep playing. They just trust each other. 'Just settle it down, do your thing, get your eyes where they belong and run with your feet and your brain.' But obviously, they made plays down the stretch when it counted.
First there was Andy Dalton’s desperation heave toward the end zone that looked like it was heading straight for an interception. As Dalton was falling to his knees, he threw the ball toward the end zone, where running back Joe Mixon, who was standing just short of the goal line, adjusted to haul the pass in and run for an 18-yard score.
Then things got weird.
Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson just missed sacking Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the next drive. Seconds later, nose tackle Andrew Billings did get to Tannehill. The ball bounced off the helmet of a Dolphins player and into Johnson’s waiting arms. He ran it in for the game-tying score.
There’s something about the 2018 Bengals that just feels different. From Clayton Fejedelem’s scoop-and-score to beat the Colts in Week 1, or Shawn Williams' strip sack to help beat the Ravens in Week 2, or even the Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection that signaled the go-ahead touchdown against the Falcons last week, it's all been wacky and weird.
When they seem most likely to lose, they pull out the win in the most surprising of ways.
Sunday's win marked the second time in Bengals history they outscored a team by 24 points in the fourth quarter, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bengals are now 4-128 in franchise history when down 14-plus points entering the fourth quarter.
The Bengals are a young team this season after parting ways with several veterans in the offseason, so it's not a surprise they play in a way that leads to wild swings. At times it has masked the bigger issues on the team, such as glaring inefficiencies in the defense and missed assignments on that side of the ball.
There are things that will continue to be a problem all season, and they certainly were a problem against the Dolphins. Special teams allowed a blocked field goal and a punt return for a touchdown. Hardy Nickerson struggled in coverage when Preston Brown briefly went out with an ankle injury. The offensive line allowed sacks on two crucial third-down plays.
All of these things certainly matter, and perhaps they can even be fixed. But the Bengals appear to have a killer instinct that can't be taught. The late-game magic that helped them to wins in September is alive and well in October, and that seems to make their other problems matter just a little less these days.
"I think there's a youthfulness, yes, that they only know one way," Lewis said. "From the Mark Waltons to the Sam Hubbards to Jessie (Bates), look at the plays these guys made down the stretch today, and they're rookies. We've got to feel really good about that. But at the same time, we've got some (mistakes) and some other things by rookies."