CINCINNATI — It could have been worse. The Bengals could have lost to the Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis Colts. Instead, they merely looked positively awful for 3 1/2 quarters.
The Bengals somehow salvaged a 24-23 win Sunday on a chilly day at Paul Brown Stadium. It wasn’t pretty. It was -- in fact -- downright ugly, but a win is a win to a win.
Carlos Dunlap’s tip-to-himself interception and 16-yard return saved the Bengals.
“The longest time was watching the ball come down,” Dunlap said. “The 16 yards happened pretty fast.”
Dunlap is discouraged from making just the type of play he made.
“We always tell Carlos to stop jumping,” linebacker Vontaze Burfict said.
While no one is overflowing with confidence in the jungle, the season remains salvageable. That would not have been the case if the Bengals had not pulled this one out. The Colts, after all, lost to Jacksonville 27-nil last week and came in a 10 1/2-point underdog.
“It’s the NFL,” defensive end Chris Smith said. “At the end of day, they get play, too. It’s a new team each week. What you saw last week might not be the team coming in.”
The Bengals are 3-4 going into a three-game stretch of road games — at Jacksonville, at Tennessee and at Denver. The Bengals have to win two of the three to have any hope of the season turning out any less than dreadful.
But, again, the Bengals dodged an awful loss on Sunday. The defense clinched it.
“Toward the end of game, we need closers,” Burfict said. “We need guys to get the quarterback.”
Here are nine takeaways from the game:
1. Carlos celebration
Dunlap is one of the more popular guys in the Bengal locker room. That was pretty apparent during the celebration of his interception and touchdown return. Half the defense piled on top of him.
“He wanted to celebrate,” Burfict said. “He wanted to use the field goal post. I said, ‘You’re not getting up.’ He said, ‘Let me go. I want to celebrate.’ We didn’t need it at the time, so I’m glad I held him down.”
2. At Whit's end
Left tackle remains a problem as it has been all year with the departure of Andrew Whitworth. The Bengals had Andre Smith there on critical third down in the fourth quarter. Tarrell Bashem got to Andy Dalton before he had a chance to look down field. The offensive line remains a problem area.
“We had some issues today,” Lewis said.
3. Is Mixon the guy?
Rookie running back Joe Mixon is a talented player, but he’s got to learn he’s not at Oklahoma anymore. When you hesitate in the NFL, a lot of fast guys are going to surround you and pound you. Mixon likes to dance behind the line of scrimmage. Based on the results, that never works.
Mixon ran the ball 11 times for a total of 18 yards.
4. The other wideout pick
A rookie wide receiver had an impact on the game for the Bengals, but it wasn’t was top pick John Ross.
Josh Malone, the fourth-round pick out Tennessee, caught a 25-yard pass from Dalton to give the Bengals the lead at 17-13.
“The safety came down,” Malone said. “I think he went with Brandon LaFell. Andy threw it my way and gave a me a chance to a make a play."
It wasn’t just Malone’s first NFL TD catch -- it was his first catch period.
“It felt amazing,” he said. “Your first touchdown in an official NFL game is amazing. It’s a dream come true.”
With Tyler Boyd and Cody Core both injured, the Bengals are searching for someone to step up at wide receiver.
5. Where's Green?
The Bengals threw to A.J. Green once in the first quarter — and that was more of a throwaway. Green was well covered in the end zone when Dalton threw to him.
Green finally a caught pass for a 8-yard touchdown with 4:36 left in the half. It was his first catch since the first half of the Pittsburgh game. Green finished with three catches for 27 yards.
6. Isn't that special?
The three biggest plays early on all came on the special teams. Jordan Willis blocked a punt to set the Bengals first score. Alex Erickson’s 29-yard punt return put the Bengals in good shape for a second field goal, but Henry Anderson blocked Randy Bullock’s 34-yard attempt.
The Colts’ first score was set up Erickson’s fumble of a punt.
7. Dalton off
Dalton had a rough half. He missed seemingly easy throws to open receiver at least three times. Dalton was 8-for-18 for 150 yards in the half.
Dalton was under pressure much of the day, and most of the missed throws came while he was on the run.
8. Ross active -- sort of
First-round draft choice John Ross was on the active roster for the second time all year. He played one series in the first half. He was targeted once, but Dalton’s pass was short.
Ross was active because Core was out with an injury.
“(Ross) was not part of the plan going into the game,” Lewis said.
9. Challenge success
The Bengals challenged Jack Doyle’s 19-yard catch on the final drive and won. Lewis was looking up the big screen for the replay.
“Our replay was really slow today,” he said. “I just got it at the last second. They don’t get a replay upstairs until television shows it. I was stuck with our board. Last millisecond.”
Doyle finished with 12 catches for 121 yards. Lewis was OK with that. T.Y. Hilton, the star wide receiver, had two catches for 15 yards.
“As long as (Hilton) isn’t catching it,” Lewis said. “I’ll trade that any day.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.