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Postseason Hopes Ride On Dominant Defense

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 25, 2012 – 3:17 pm

As the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2000, Marvin Lewis was in charge of a unit that surrendered 165 points all season – the fewest ever allowed during a 16-game season.

So was Cincinnati’s defensive performance last Sunday in Pittsburgh reminiscent of the dominant efforts that Lewis directed 12 years ago?

“It was except that we let the other team score a touchdown,” Marvin said with a laugh.  “Those guys (in Baltimore) never wanted to let the other team score.  But yea, it was a great, great defensive day.”

It was the latest in a string of them.

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Over the past seven games, the Bengals defense has allowed an average of 272.3 yards and 12.1 points – both figures would lead the NFL if they were season totals.

“I have a lot of confidence in these guys and the way that we’re playing,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.  “I feel like if we continue to play the way we’re playing and do things right, I think we have a chance to go up against anybody and put up a great performance.  But we have to go out each and every week and do what we’re supposed to do.  Right now we’ve been on a hot streak and I hope it continues.”

Is it a defensive that gives the Bengals a shot to beat anybody that they will face in the postseason?

“We have to keep playing soundly, but to answer your question simply, yes it does,” said Lewis.  “We’re doing a great job of taking away what we feel are the offensive strengths and making the other team work into their weaknesses a little bit more.  I think that’s a key to playing great defense down the stretch.  Our players are cerebrally recognizing what’s important and they’re working on that during the week as the game plan unfolds.”

Of course it helps to have a wrecking ball in the middle named Geno Atkins.

Geno sacks Ben (420x236)

With 2.5 sacks against the Steelers last Sunday, Geno ranks 5th in the NFL with 13 this season.  That’s nearly twice as many as the next-best defensive tackle – Ndamukong Suh – who has 7 for Detroit.  Suh was the second overall pick and first defensive tackle selected in the 2010 NFL draft.  Atkins was chosen with the 120th pick and was the 15th defensive tackle selected.

“Honestly, we targeted Geno in the draft,” said Zimmer.  “I’m not saying it was me, but I said, ‘If this guy is there in the fourth round we need to take him.’  At that point in time we were looking for an inside pass rusher.  We felt like we had some ends that could rush and if we could get a little bit of an inside pass rush that it would really help.  Obviously I didn’t know that he was going to be this good or he would have been drafted a lot higher.  I remember in the rookie minicamps and OTAs, some of the offensive players walked over and said, ‘Is this guy going to do this when we get the pads on?’  Geno’s been doing it ever since.”

With Atkins leading the way, the Bengals rank second in the NFL with 47 sacks (one behind Denver).  Defensive lineman have accounted for 38 of those sacks – a figure that is better than 23 NFL team totals.

It’s a defensive unit that clearly loves playing for Zimmer and doesn’t want to let him down.

“It makes me feel like I don’t want to let them down either,” said Zimmer.  “I want to make sure that I put them in the best position to win each and every week.  To make sure that they understand exactly what the other team’s offense is trying to do and how they’re trying to do it.  We really have a team concept.  We don’t have selfish guys.  Geno Atkins is a perfect example.  He might have 20 sacks if he was playing on a team that just rushed the passer on every single down.  We have guys that want to do things within the framework of the defense and play together.  I always talk to them about being a smart defense and playing together with great effort and intensity.  Once we can get them to buy into that and not get frustrated because they’re not necessarily making plays, then you have a chance.”

While Atkins is undoubtedly the Bengals’ defensive MVP, Chris Crocker is the unsung hero.  The 32-year-old veteran did not join this year’s team until the fourth game of the season and didn’t become the primary strong safety until the eighth game vs. Denver.

Through the Denver game, the Bengals only held one of eight quarterbacks to a passer rating under 90.4 (Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert at 78.8) and the average QB rating against Cincinnati was 99.4.  Over the past seven games – despite facing the likes of Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, and Ben Roethlisberger – no opponent has managed a passer rating higher than 75.4 vs. Cincinnati, and the average has been 64.9.

“That’s a beautiful thing isn’t it?” said Zimmer.  “When we started going into this stretch we talked about how it was going to be the murderer’s row of quarterbacks and our guys have risen to the occasion quite a bit.”

It’s easy to forget that going into last year; the Bengals were coming off of a 4-12 season and were widely expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL.  Instead, the “Andy and A.J.” era has started with back-to-back playoff appearances.

“We have so many young players,” said Lewis.  “The quarterback and receiver continue to be at the focal point of things and the fact that we have a lot of young defensive guys that aren’t even seeing the field is really a plus as we go forward.  There’s a strong, strong foundation that’s been built and I think that was the key thing when we got started again prior to the 2011 season.  We needed to really drill down and lay some pillars and I think we’ve got that done now.  Now we continue to build upon it, and every time that we add a guy, it’s a big plus.”

Marvin Lewis won a Super Bowl ring with a Wild Card team a dozen years ago.  Perhaps it’s a longshot, but his goal is to do it again over the next month.

“Our goal is to be World Champions and now we’re in it and we have to go forward,” said Lewis.  “We’ve got ourselves into the tournament – not exactly where we wanted to be because we wanted to win the division – but we’re in the tournament and that’s all you can ask for at this point.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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A Look At The Bengals Christmas Present…Not Past

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 23, 2012 – 11:48 pm

I’d be willing to bet that there’s not a single player in the Bengals locker room that knows that David Shula was once the team’s head coach.  Or that Gary Reasons embarrassed him by tugging on his cap on the sideline during a Monday Night Football game.

Additionally, if you made a reference to Gus Frerotte’s left-handed interception or Corey Dillon’s desire to flip burgers to a member of this year’s team you would be greeted with a blank stare.

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In other words, the 2012 Bengals have nothing to do with the team’s struggles in previous decades.  Perhaps Christmas would be a good time to look at the present instead of the past.

The Bengals are going to playoffs for the third time in the last four years, making them one of only seven teams that can make that claim.  The last three drafts alone have produced Geno Atkins, Clint Boling, Andy Dalton, Carlos Dunlap, A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, Marvin Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Mohamed Sanu, Kevin Zeitler, and others.  And after starting the season 3-5 with a four game losing streak, the Bengals have won six of their last seven to make the playoffs for the second straight season.

“It’s big man,” said nine-year veteran Robert Geathers.  “For this franchise to do it back-to-back is a stepping stone.  We’ve got something to build on.”

“It’s big for us,” said Andy Dalton.  “We had to come out and get a win in this one – especially with all of the things that were on the line.  It feels great to be where we are right now.”

“I am very, very proud of the Bengals,” said Adam Jones.  “I’m happy to be here and it’s been a good ride.”

Last year the Bengals needed help on the final Sunday of the regular season to squeeze into the playoffs, but this year, Cincinnati not only earned a return to the postseason by winning in Pittsburgh but sent the Steelers packing in the process.

“Our young players should never forget this,” said Reggie Nelson.  “They’ve been beating us for the last few years and it ought to feel good for our players to get this goal achieved.  That’s big when you come into somebody else’s house and win a big football game.”

“These are the games that I live for,” said Jones.  “It was probably the most exciting game I ever played.  When they played their music going into the fourth quarter, I just got a rush thinking, ‘We’re going to win this sucker and shut the crowd up.’ ”

The win ended the Bengals 29-year streak of not going to the playoffs in consecutive seasons.  The next demon to exorcise is to record the franchise’s first playoff win since 1990.  Perhaps that won’t happen in the next few weeks, but with Cincinnati’s talented young nucleus, that day is coming soon.

“These guys don’t have doubt in the back of their mind,” said Geathers.  “We believe that we can win because we have a lot of good football players on the team.  You just have to go out there and get it done.”

“We’re excited to get to the playoffs, but it’s just the beginning,” said Domata Peko.

“We have more football to play,” said Marvin Lewis.  “That’s the thing – we set our goals high and we’re going to keep battling.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Atkins Actions — Not Words — Speak Volumes

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 17, 2012 – 6:18 pm

Geno Atkins might be the worst player in the NFL…

…at talking about himself.

Atkins sacks Palmer (440x292)

For example, if you ask Atkins if he agrees with the widely-held notion that he is currently the best defensive tackle in the NFL, here’s what you get:

“We still have some games left so I can’t agree yet,” Geno told me.  “I think it’s an accumulation of the collective effort of my teammates.”

Not exactly a clip and save quote.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of people who are willing to sing Atkins’ praises.

“Geno Atkins right now is playing as good as anybody in this league as a defensive tackle,” said Eagles coach Andy Reid.

“He’s definitely up there,” said defensive end Robert Geathers.  “He’s so disruptive week in and week out and he’s consistent.  That’s the big thing in this league.  He’s good in the run game and the passing game so he’s definitely up there near the top.”

“I’ve never seen a defensive tackle take on double teams and make plays like he does,” said linebacker Manny Lawson.  “When you look at Geno, he’s running all over the field.  He’s around the ball on almost every tackle.  What defensive tackle does that?”

“He’s so quick and explosive off the ball,” said Greg Cosell, Senior Producer for NFL Films.  “There are times when you watch him where he looks like a running back playing defensive tackle.  And he has also shown the ability to get underneath the pads of guards or centers and bull rush.  There were a couple of plays that I can remember against Oakland a few weeks ago where he was just unbelievable.  I think he’s the best D-tackle in the game right now.”

The data backs that up.  Atkins leads all interior linemen in sacks with 10.5, four more than the next-best defensive tackle Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh.  So what did it mean to Geno to become the first Bengals player since 2006 to have 10-or-more sacks in a season?

“It’s a good milestone,” said Atkins.  “I’ve heard that normally defensive tackles don’t get double digits sacks so it feels pretty good to represent for the D-tackles.”

In truth, Atkins is putting up numbers that are highly unusual for his position.  Consider these nuggets from ProFootballFocus.com analyst Sam Monson:

  • Already comfortably highest graded DT we’ve had in a season at +65.0, previous best was Kyle Williams at +44.2 in 2010
  • In addition to his 10.5 sacks, Geno’s 69 QB pressures are 21 more than the next best DT (Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy).
  • Only Denver linebacker Von Miller and Miami defensive end Cameron Wake have more total pressures than Atkins.  He’s third in the entire NFL and he’s a defensive tackle!
  • He records a stop against the run on 10.6% of his run snaps, which trails only Chicago’s Henry Melton among DTs
  • Leads all DTs in stops by 10

“Completely mind-bending numbers,” concluded Monson.

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My broadcasting partner Dave Lapham doesn’t need stats to judge Atkins’ dominance.  Lap says the body language of opposing players that have to block Geno tells you all that you need to know.

“I love watching the first pass set that the opposing guards have to take,” said Lapham.  “They study tape all week and probably think, ‘Man, that guy looks pretty quick.’  But when he’s right in front of you when they snap the ball and you have to experience it first-hand…I love watching the guards after that first play because when they turn around and walk back to the huddle you can see their shoulders slump a little bit and they start shaking their heads.  I like watching that reaction and it’s almost been every game without exception.”

“There was one game this year – Kansas City I believe – where we were on the field goal block team and the guard that was lined up against me said, ‘Damn, that sucker is strong.’” said Geathers with a laugh.  “They’re definitely shocked when they play against him.”

“I just let ‘em know that it’s going to be a long day every time that they go up against me,” said Atkins.

Geno lasted until the fourth round of the 2010 draft because he was considered undersized at 6’1”, 293 pounds.  But great quickness, a 550-pound bench press, and a relentless motor have made him one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL.

“His passion for the game and ‘want-to’ is incredible,” said Lawson.  “He’s small, he’s quick, he’s explosive, and he has a big heart.  He plays with a chip on his shoulder and like he has something to prove.”

“The other team has to come out of the huddle and go, ‘Where’s 97?’” said Lapham.  “He’s a force on every snap.”

As for my conversation with Geno, he did say one thing that should make opposing lineman shudder:  He thinks he can get even better.

“I just feel like each year I try to improve on the little things,” said Atkins.  “I try to look back at what I did in the previous year and ask, ‘What can I do to get better?’”

Aside from talking about himself, there isn’t much.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals Ditch Script And Dump Eagles

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 14, 2012 – 4:10 am

So much for the pregame analysis.

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I think most of us expected the Bengals defense – currently number one in the NFL in sacks – to tee off on Philly’s rookie quarterback Nick Foles on Thursday.  But it was Andy Dalton who was running for his life all night as he was sacked six times and forced to fumble twice.

“The run blocking was pretty good, but boy, the pass protection was struggle city,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham.  “The Eagles were running a lot of twists and stunts and when the Bengals went to help, there was nobody there because of those stunts.  It isn’t anything that you don’t see on a weekly basis in the NFL, but you usually don’t see it that much.  Once Philadelphia started having success, they went to it again and again and again.”

But the inability to protect Dalton didn’t spell doom thanks to a brilliant performance by the Bengals defense.

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With roughly eight minutes to go in the first half, the Eagles had a first-and-goal opportunity at the three yard line and settled for a field goal.  Then with 39 seconds left in the half, Philadelphia had a first-and-goal at the two yard line and settled for another field goal.

Instead of taking a 21-10 lead and abundant confidence into the locker room, the Eagles were only up by three points.

“As a defense, we pride ourselves in not letting them score near the goal line,” said Manny Lawson.  “That’s a critical area because it can change the momentum of the game.  Our guys stepped up and made plays.”

The biggest play of the game came in the third quarter.  After the Bengals offense opened the second half with a pair of three-and-outs, Leon Hall came up with his first interception of the year and returned it 44 yards.

“That was huge,” said Reggie Nelson.  “We needed that and that’s what playmakers do.  Leon is a playmaker and he showed up.  That was a big play to get the momentum back because we were kind of dead and that gave us that spark.”

Hall’s interception gave the Bengals a short field and led to an 11-yard touchdown run by Dalton that gave Cincinnati a 17-13 lead.  It also opened the floodgates, as the Eagles fumbled three times in the next 2:04, leading to 17 more points.

“It wasn’t a pretty win, but defensively it was very pretty,” said Lapham.  “The only thing they didn’t do was get a bunch of sacks.  They did get one, but forced several fumbles including one taken for a touchdown … a lot of things went right.”

“We shut them out in the second half and that’s what counts,” said Jones.

What really matters is that the Bengals took a half-game lead over Pittsburgh in the wild card race.  If the Steelers lose at Dallas on Sunday and the Jets lose at Tennessee on Monday, Cincinnati could clinch its second straight playoff trip with a win at Pittsburgh next week.

“This wasn’t our best performance but we won the game,” said Jones.  “That’s what good teams do.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Orange and Black Fails In Red (Zone)

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 10, 2012 – 9:09 am

Kicker Josh Brown was certainly impressive in his Bengals debut.  I just wish that we hadn’t seen him so much.

If you’re looking for the single-biggest reason why the Bengals lost on Sunday, it was the fact that they were lousy in the red zone.  Andrew Hawkins scored a touchdown on Cincinnati’s first trip, but the next three times that the Bengals drove inside the 20-yard line, they settled for field goals by Brown.

“They gave the Cowboys an opportunity to win because they did not execute in the red zone,” said my broadcasting partner Dave Lapham.  “In the second half of the season they’ve been dynamite in the red zone and on Sunday, the dynamite blew up right in their face.  You start settling for three points instead of seven on three different occasions – that game could have been totally in hand.”

Dalton sacked Cowboys (440x367)

During their four game winning streak, the Bengals were almost automatic in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 13 of 17 trips (76%), but that stat has been a key indicator of success all year.  In their seven wins, the Bengals have scored touchdowns on 19 of 30 red zone trips (63%).  In their six losses, they’ve only scored touchdowns on 8 of 18 red zone trips (44%).

“When you’re in the red zone, the number one priority is to get into the end zone,” said Marvin Jones.  “Scoring touchdowns is vital to the success of the team.  Those times that we took the field goal came back to haunt us.”

There were plenty of culprits on Sunday.  Late in the first quarter, the Bengals drove to the Cowboys five yard line, before Andy Dalton was sacked on third-and-four.

“It just comes down to executing, that’s all it is,” said Andy Dalton.  “We had our chances, we just didn’t execute.”

In the second quarter, the Bengals drove to the Dallas 15 yard line, but on third-and-three, Dalton missed a wide-open Hawkins on a crossing route for what would have been a first down at the 10 yard line.

“We have to catch the football – it’s as simple as that,” said Hawkins.  “There are no excuses.  We have to make those plays.”

In the third quarter, the Bengals had it first-and-goal from the nine yard line and couldn’t punch it in.  On second-and-goal from the seven, a touchdown pass to Marvin Jones was nullified because he stepped out of the end zone before making the catch.  Two plays later, A.J. Green dropped what should have been his 11th TD grab of the year.

“I just took my eyes off it,” said Green.  “It’s unusual for me, but I guess it happens sometimes.  I’m not going to beat myself up about it, but I’ve got to do better.”

If the Bengals had made just one of those red zone plays, the Cowboys could not have won on a last-second field goal.

“The Cowboys have been a great fourth quarter team all year,” said Hawkins.  “We knew that going in and we let them stay close.”

“I can probably speak for every guy on this team,” said Manny Lawson.  “We’re all going to look at plays that we should have made.  The ‘coulda, woulda, shouldas’ changed the outcome of this game.”

It turned into a field goal kicking clinic by Josh Brown.  I don’t know about you, but I prefer watching him boot extra points.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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How Good Is The Bengals Defense?

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 3, 2012 – 6:50 pm

Going into last week’s game at San Diego, I figured that if the Bengals beat the Chargers, they would have a one game over Pittsburgh in the wild card race because there was no way that the Steelers would win in Baltimore without Ben Roethlisberger.

Admit it, you thought the same thing.

The Bengals were obviously hoping that would be the case.

“I saw it come up on the scoreboard during the game when Pittsburgh was down by seven and I was like, ‘It’s going to happen,’ said Carlos Dunlap.  “After the game, somebody told me that Pittsburgh won and I was like, ‘What?  No way.’  But hey, Pittsburgh is still Pittsburgh no matter who is the quarterback.  They still have a bunch of great players around him.”

“Pittsburgh has a great defense, and anytime that you have a defense like that you’re going to be in the game,” said Leon Hall.

The question is:  Do the Bengals have a defense like that?

Rivers sacked (440x297)

It certainly didn’t look like it in September when the Bengals allowed an average of 28 points in their first four games but managed to win three of them thanks to an offense that averaged 33 points in the victories.

“When we were struggling early on defensively, the offense was able to pick us up and vice versa,” said Hall.  “We realize that not everybody is going to play a great game every week, so if somebody is struggling on a certain side of the ball or special teams, somebody else has to pick up the slack.  That’s our mentality and really what it takes to be a team.”

The defensive repaid the favor in San Diego when the offense sputtered by holding the Chargers to two field goals on offense and no points in the second half.

“We went in at halftime and everybody was on edge because it wasn’t how they envisioned it going,” said Zimmer.  “I had to remind them that the Chargers hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown yet, so let’s just relax and do what we’re supposed to do.”

“Ideally, that’s not the type of game that we want from our offense, but we were able to hold it down,” said Carlos Dunlap.

While the Steelers rank number one in the NFL in total defense, the Bengals steadily have climbed to number eight.  During the current four game winning streak, Cincinnati is allowing a mere 279.3 yards per game.  To put that into perspective, there are only two teams in the NFL that are allowing fewer than 300 yards of offense per game:  Pittsburgh (259.8) and San Francisco (279.6).

“We got back to doing some of the things that we’ve done in past years,” said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.  “We were trying to be fancy and stay ahead of the curve and then we basically decided that the stuff that we used to do was pretty good.”

“At the end of the year, we want to look back and say that we were in the top five or the top three – really we want to be number one,” said Dunlap.  “That’s our goal as a unit.”

“Zim talks about it all the time – he doesn’t care where we started, he wants to look at the end of the season and figure out where we are,” said Rey Maualuga.  “We have four more games to develop as a unit and make sure that all we do is climb and I think that we can get there.”

The Bengals have already proven that they can win a game when their offense isn’t clicking.

“The defense is playing lights out,” said fullback Chris Pressley.  “As long as the offense puts a couple of things together, we feel like they’re going to hold them.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Bengals Grind Out Win In San Diego

Posted by Dan Hoard on December 3, 2012 – 1:00 am

Leave it to Jay Gruden to invent a word to describe the Bengals 20-13 win in San Diego.

“It was a ‘grindy’ game,” said the Bengals offensive coordinator.

Grind + ugly = grindy.

In this case, it was a winning combination.

Dalton diving TD (440x290)

For much of Sunday’s game, the Bengals offensive did all it could to keep the Chargers in the game.  A “Pick Six” by Andy Dalton…a costly drop by Marvin Jones…a fumble by Jermaine Gresham … not what the doctor ordered against a team that was missing four defensive starters.

“We gave ‘em reason to believe,” said Gruden.  “We shot ourselves in the foot a few times.”

But the Bengals defensive did not allow San Diego to capitalize, holding the Chargers to 297 total yards and no offensive touchdowns.

“In the NFL, whenever you’re able to hold a team without a touchdown – especially with guys like Rivers and Gates – that’s pretty impressive,” said Robert Geathers.

“The defense did an excellent job of not giving up big plays and keeping us in the game,” said Gruden.

Especially in the second half when five of the Chargers first six drives lasted for four-or-fewer plays.

“It shows the talent that we have on our defense and the opportunity that we have to make a name for ourselves,” said Carlos Dunlap who had two sacks and forced two fumbles.  “We just have to do it week in and week out.  Today was another brick and we’re trying to build a fortress.”

“We’re so talented man,” said Adam Jones.  “We just have to keep working because the sky is the limit for this team.  I just pray to God that Coach Lewis, and Zim, and Jay just keep doing what they’re doing because it has a positive effect on everybody in the room.  We have a lot of young guys that love to compete and everybody wants to win.  It’s a great group man.”

When 11:53 remaining, the offense was finally able to avoid mistakes on a methodical 14 play, 55 yard touchdown drive that won the game.  There was no gain of more than nine yards on the drive and the Bengals successfully converted three times on third down before Andy Dalton scored on a six yard run to give Cincinnati the lead for good.

“He had a couple of things that didn’t go his way, but man, Andy’s a trooper,” said Jones.  “He’s one of the guys that you know is going to give his all every week.”

“We didn’t play perfect and made a lot of mistakes, but that’s what good football teams do – they stay in it, they keep working, and they pull it out in the end,” said Andrew Hawkins who had five catches for 47 yards.  “I’m proud of all of the guys in here.”

Baby Hawk has every reason to be proud because winning in San Diego is tough.  And the way the Bengals pulled it out on Sunday showed toughness.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Gruden.  “San Diego was playing for their playoff life and we got their best game.

“That’s one of those games that we needed as a team,” said Carlos Dunlap.  “It tested our heart and we showed how bad that we wanted it.”

“To come here and win on the road is huge,” said Andy Dalton.  “It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win.”

Who needs pretty when you have grindy.

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