Carlos Dunlap said the Cincinnati Bengals “poked the bear” when they benched Andy Dalton. The veteran quarterback returned to his starting role with a fire lit under him and led his team to its first win under Zac Taylor.
Dalton, who had been replaced by rookie Ryan Finley for three games, completed 22 of 37 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown in his first start since Week 8, and the Bengals beat the New York Jets 22-6 on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
He gave the Bengals a 7-3 lead they wouldn’t lose in the first quarter when he connected with Tyler Boyd on a 17-yard dart for his 198th career touchdown pass, making him the franchise’s all-time leader in that category. He later surpassed Ken Anderson for the No. 1 spot in career pass completions as well.
Here are five takeaways from the win:
1. The drought is over
For a while 0-16 was looking very possible for these Bengals, but they’ve slowly shown progress and finally put it all together for the first win since Dec. 16, 2018, ending a 13-game losing streak.
The win was a relief for Taylor, who said he couldn’t even describe the strain an 0-11 record had put on him professionally and personally. The first-year head coach was hired exactly 300 days prior and understandably was emotional during his post-game press conference, teary-eyed after finally getting a chance to celebrate with the team he had remained so positive about all season.
»PHOTOS: Bengals top Jets for first win
Sam Hubbard and Carlos Dunlap showered him with Gatorade as the game ended, Taylor jumped up to high-five a loyal fan in the stands he’s noticed all season as he ran into the tunnel coming off the field and music flowed through the locker room after his speech to the team.
“It’s a great feeling there in the locker room,” Taylor said. “These guys earned this and fought their tails off for the last nine months, waiting for a moment like this. … Proud of them, proud of the coaches, proud of the players for sticking together these 12 games and earning this win. Now the pressure is off of you a little bit. Now that it’s off you, you get a chance to go and be free and get some more wins and finish this thing out the right way.”
No team in franchise history had ever lost 11 games in a row in a single season, and the Bengals are hoping all it takes is one win to get the ball rolling as Taylor seeks to build momentum for 2020.
2. Dalton proves his worth
Taylor said this week he realized the Bengals’ best chance to win was with Dalton, and Dalton backed that up Sunday. He showed a little rust his first drive, which included an overthrow of Boyd on his first pass attempt, but the second possession went much smoother, as he finished it off with three straight pass completions, including a spectacular 18-yard catch by Auden Tate to set up Boyd’s touchdown.
Dalton nearly had two more touchdowns in the first half, but C.J. Uzomah dropped an easy one, wide open right outside the end zone, causing the Bengals to settle for a field goal, and Tyler Eifert had a drop in the end zone before Joe Mixon ran in for a five-yard score with less than two minutes left before halftime.
“This one felt good,” Dalton said. “Just going into the week, knowing I was going to be starting, i wanted to attack every day and make sure I gave everyone else confidence we were going to get this thing done. I was confident in what we had going in. I thought we had one of the best weeks of practices we’ve had this year, and I just felt like we were going to get this done. Regardless of all the other circumstances, the fact I’m back out here playing, I want to win each time I’m out here, and we were able to get that done today.”
The ninth-year quarterback finished with an 88.0 passer rating, which was his third highest this season and best since a 26-23 loss to Arizona in Week 5.
“He was slinging it out,” Dunlap said. “He was on point. That was the Red Rifle today. I think they poked the bear with what they did, and I want him to finish the whole season like that and just collectively continuing to get better.”
3. Defense does it again
The defense continues to improve. This was the third straight game they’ve held an opponent to 17 points or less, and it was especially impressive the Jets were held to two field goals. New York had scored 34 points in each of its last three games and never even reached the end zone.
The Bengals ate up the Jets’ offensive line, sacking Sam Darnold four times for losses of 30 yards. Dunlap had three of those sacks, and Hubbard had the other one.
“The defense is just showing how special we can be,” safety Shawn Williams said. “We have the pieces and just had to put it together because we’ve been playing good football the last couple weeks. We’ve given up some explosive plays, but we’ve still been giving up (fewer points) and playing great defense, not giving up touchdowns and minimizing the things that were hurting us at the beginning of the season.”
4. Second-half slow down
Taylor attributed the lack of production from the offense in the second half to the wind.
The only points scored after halftime came on a 47-yard field goal by Randy Bullock and a safety when Jets left tackle Kelvin Beachum was flagged for a hold in the end zone. Bullock missed a 48-yarder, and Dalton completed just 8 of 17 passes for 88 yards in the second half. All of those happened in the third quarter when the Bengals were driving toward the river.
“You couldn’t throw the ball towards the city, you had to wait until you were coming towards the river,” Taylor said. “I thought Andy did a really good job of handling that.”
5. Fan support at an all-time low
Bengals fans have been losing interest through the 0-11 start, and Sunday’s attendance of 39,804 was the franchise’s lowest home crowd since 1995 when 34,568 fans attended a Christmas Eve game against Minnesota at Cinergy Field.
Attendance likely will rise for the last two home games with help from the win and the opponent. The team is at Cleveland next week but returns to Paul Brown Stadium to face the New England Patriots on Dec. 15, and the Bengals play the season finale at home Dec. 29 against the Browns.
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