Clutch wins becoming Bengals' identity


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- First, it was the fourth-down fumble. Next came the immaculate interception. Now for the Who Dey Nation, it's all about the perfectly placed punt return.

When the Cincinnati Bengals have needed a key, late-game play in the clutch this season, they mostly have gotten it. Save for linebacker Rey Maualuga's personal foul meltdown at the end of the season opener in Chicago, the Bengals have had just the right big play when they have needed it the most.

As the wins continue to pile up, the Bengals are beginning to show a unique flair for drama. Of their four victories, three -- the last three -- have come when the seconds of regulation have either been expiring or have completely ticked away. Sunday's was of the latter variety.

For the first time since 2009, the Bengals went to overtime. Like that instance, they won on the road, beating Buffalo, 27-24. Mike Nugent's game-winning 43-yard field goal ended up accomplishing what probably should have been done some seven minutes prior.

"We knew we shouldn't be in overtime. It was a time where we knew we should have won the game in regular time," Bengals running back Giovani Bernard said, citing Cincinnati's blown 14-point fourth-quarter lead.

Whether the Bengals like it or not, this is their identity. They are becoming that team. You know, the one that can play well at the start, sloppy in the middle and pretty at the very finish. The one that for whatever reason stumbles toward the finish line, and somehow trips over it just in time. The Cardiac Cats are alive and well.

"You hate to have to do it this way, but I guess that's what we're stuck doing right now," coach Marvin Lewis said.

Like Andy Dalton said, "a win is a win." In this league, you take what you can get.

"Every game is tough," added Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall. "We have the mindset that every game is going to be close. People on the outside, maybe they thought we should have beaten them by three touchdowns, but it's never like that. You don't get those games like that where people get blown out in the NFL."

But Sunday's game sure was heading that way.

With about 11 minutes remaining, the Bengals went up 24-10 and looked to be in full control against a quarterback who, until last Monday, was on the Bills' practice squad. As the momentum had teetered back onto their side, it seemed obvious the Bengals were going to not only win the game by double-digits, but that they would do so in rout fashion.

But then, the little-known quarterback making his second career start came alive. Breakdowns in Bengals coverage led to a few big plays and before you knew it, a 22-yard and a 40-yard touchdown later, Buffalo tied the game with 1:08 left in regulation.

The game should have been over. Everyone on the Bengals sideline knew that. All of Ralph Wilson Stadium knew that.

"Winning is tough," Lewis said. "We had to chisel at it. The thing we have to understand is when we play, we have to take away the strength of the team and make them work into the weakness. I don't think we did that thoroughly enough [Sunday]."

That's why, when continuing to address the Bills' comeback, Lewis added: "We'll keep coaching hard and trying to prevent this."

Still, as he also pointed out, there were positives from the win. Among them was the fact that yet again, his team proved it could win a game in the clutch.

Against Green Bay three weeks ago, the Bengals won on a fourth-down fumble recovery by Terence Newman. After defensive end Michael Johnson forced the ball loose with his helmet on the late-game defensive stand, safety Reggie Nelson scooped the ball and started to run before he lost it, too. Newman grabbed Nelson's fumble and sprinted in for the go-ahead score. One defensive series later, Johnson batted away an Aaron Rodgers fourth-down pass that effectively ended the game.

Cincinnati won, 34-30.

Last week, against New England, the Bengals battled through a sudden rainstorm that hit Paul Brown Stadium with less than four minutes remaining. As Tom Brady threw his last pass in the monsoon-like conditions, cornerback Adam Jones had the presence of mind to tip what he could see of the ball into the air. As he fell and landed on the ground, he caught the interception, despite conditions that weren't favorable to do so. The play happened with 16 seconds on the game clock, and effectively iced that contest.

Cincinnati won, 13-6.

On Sunday, it was Brandon Tate's 29-yard punt return in overtime that set up Nugent's game-winning kick.

Even in the season opener, one the Bengals lost by three, Cincinnati had a chance to drive for a game-tying or game-winning score had it not been for Maualuga's personal foul. The infraction came just after a third-down stop. Instead of the Bears punting to the timeout-less Bengals, they got a first down and went through kneeldowns until time had expired.

These are Cincinnati's Cardiac Cats. And while that nickname might not be the most endearing, it shouldn't be taken as an insult. So far, that erratic, heart-pounding style of play has turned out to be a good thing.