The Cincinnati Bengals watched a 21-point lead slip away Thursday night in their home opener, but they flipped the switch just in time to salvage a 34-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens.
Cincinnati squandered a 28-7 first-half advantage, as the Ravens scored 16 straight points to make it a five-point game in the fourth quarter.
But, the Bengals — a team that last year might have completely buckled under pressure — responded this time to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
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They ended a 30-minute scoring drought thanks to a crucial 28-yard field goal from Randy Bullock with 2:59 left, and the defense then followed suit with safety Shawn Williams forcing a fumble on a sack of Joe Flacco three plays from scrimmage later. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick recovered to set Cincinnati up for another Bullock field goal from 40 yards to seal it.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. Fast start pays off
The Andy Dalton to A.J. Green connection looked as strong as ever in the first half, and that was just what the Bengals needed. The duo found the end zone three consecutive drives to give the Bengals a 21-0 lead, and it proved too big a hole for the Ravens to climb.
As elite of a receiver as Green has been, Thursday marked the first three-touchdown game of his career. His first touchdown came on a 4-yard grab to take advantage of a short field, followed by a 32-yard score and a 7-yarder. Those were his first three catches of the game. He made just two more after that, while Tyler Boyd stepped up to record a team-high 91 yards receiving and one touchdown on six receptions.
Boyd caught Dalton’s fourth touchdown pass of the night to make it 28-7 with 2:58 left in the second quarter before the offense stalled in the second half. Baltimore traditionally has a strong defense and allowed just three points and 153 yards of offense total Sunday against the Bills.
“We were clicking on all cylinders - nothing special, we were just in a groove,” Green said of the quick start.
2. Overcoming injuries
Injuries certainly could have taken a bigger toll than they did on the end result.
The Bengals lost rookie center Billy Price (ankle) and veteran defensive end Michael Johnson (left knee) to injuries in the first quarter, but their replacements performed admirably. Trey Hopkins slid in at center for the first time in his NFL career and was part of an offensive line that allowed no sacks against a stout Ravens defensive line, and rookie Sam Hubbard filled in for Johnson with a big game in front of his hometown crowd. Hubbard recorded his first career sack for an 11-yard loss in the first quarter and finished with five tackles, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry.
Running back Joe Mixon left the game twice with a knee injury also suffered in the first quarter but came back both times and finished with an impressive 84 yards on 21 carries despite being limited. He said the knee was still bothering him after the game but he isn’t worried about it.
“It was really important (to finish the game),” Mixon said. “Coach called my number and the team needed me, and they needed us to make plays, and we were fortunate enough to make them. We settled in in the fourth quarter, and the last two drives we went out there and were fortunate enough to finish them off.”
The heat also took a toll as Williams left twice to get an IV, Carlos Dunlap needed fluids and Kirkpatrick exited late with muscle cramps in his leg.
3. Bouncing back
Williams said earlier this week he felt like he let his team down Sunday when he was ejected for unnecessary roughness in the first quarter against the Colts.
He made up for it Thursday with the fumble-causing sack on Flacco on third-and-10 from the Baltimore 25 with 2:42 left to set up Bullock’s final field goal. Williams also had an interception, a pass deflection, a quarterback hurry and was second in tackles with eight.
The Bengals defense recorded three turnovers with safety Jessie Bates recording his first career interception to get things going in the first quarter. They also were able to apply more pressure to Flacco than against Andrew Luck on Sunday. Flacco was sacked four times, and Carlos Dunlap deflected the pass that Williams intercepted.
4. Handling pressure
The offense had an answer for Baltimore’s pass rush, and the pressure on Dalton was limited after the Colts got pressure on him 13 times and sacked him twice. The Ravens ultimately gave up on their blitz, which has been a mark of their defense.
That’s a big sign for the offensive line, which continues to be under the spotlight after so many struggles last year and changes there this season. The Ravens sacked Buffalo’s quarterbacks six times Sunday.
“I thought, from a communication standpoint and guys being on the same page with what they were doing, it’s big versus that defense, where their front is really good and all the blitzes they throw at you,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to be prepared for it. On a short week, I thought we did a great job. To come out of a game like that - not one sack versus that defense - is a big thing and I thought our guys played really well up front.”
5. Getting results
The Bengals haven’t done well in primetime in the past and were 4-5 on Thursdays under Lewis going into this game. Last year, they opened with a 20-0 loss to the Ravens in a game in which Dalton struggled with turnovers and they ended up starting 0-2 and deciding to make a change in offensive coordinator.
This start already feels vastly different. Cincinnati scored 21 unanswered points to win the opener at Indianapolis and made it 45 straight points with the quick start Thursday before Baltimore ended the streak in the second quarter.
Despite the lull in the second half, the Bengals fired back up to finish strong in a game they might not have finished off last year.
“We came out hot and that’s exactly how we wanted to start the game,” Dalton said. “A big win for us to put us at 2-0 to start the year. We’ve got a leg up in the division, which is good, so it was exactly what we wanted to do. To finish it off … a great win for us.”