CINCINNATI — Where was this the last two months?
The Bengals looked like a good NFL team for most of Sunday afternoon in a 32-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals hadn’t put together any effort approaching that level since the 22-7 victory over Miami way back on Sept. 29. (Well, there was the Oct. 23 win over Cleveland. But the Browns aren’t really a gauge by which to evaluate success).
The difference? Making plays.
“I think we just made the plays we needed to,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “When we had opportunities, we made plays. That helped us win.”
“Football’s funny that way,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “No matter how good or bad your performance is it comes down to lot more things. Guys made plays on both sides of the ball. If you don’t make plays, you get yourself in percentages and downs where have no chance.”
With A.J. Green out, the Eagles put eight in the box and challenged Dalton to beat them. Baltimore used the same strategy and Dalton could not beat them.
Sunday, he had his best game of the year. He completed 23 of 31 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. His quarterback rating was 130.0.
“That was part of their game plan,” Dalton said. “Our guys had a lot of one-on-ones. Our guys won more often than not.”
The Bengals got contributions from players that heretofore were mostly taking up roster spots. Cody Core, the sixth-round pick out of Mississippi, made a 50-yard catch and run to set up a 2-yard Jeremy Hill TD. It was Core’s first catch of the year.
“That was amazing,” Core said. “No better way than to go deep.”
Rex Burkhead ran eight times for 38 yards and caught four balls for 28 more. Brandon LaFell had his biggest game as a Bengal, catching five balls for 95 yards and a TD.
Again, that made the offense work without Green.
“We felt like we were in better rhythm than we were last week,” Dalton said. “When there’s not guys in there, it’s going to take a little time. We made a big improvement this week.”
Vontaze Burfict had a huge game as well — 14 tackles, two interceptions.
The defense set the tone in the first drive. Philly lost two yards on a first-down run. That was followed by two incomplete passes. A three-and-out isn’t reason to celebrate, unless you’ve given up touchdowns on the first drive in seven of your last eight games — as the Bengals had.
“We got tired of hearing people say we start slow — letting people score on the first drive,” Burfict said. “We did a good job this week focusing on the details, understanding what they’re doing.”
The offense was even better. The Bengals put up points on every drive of the first half and the first two of the second. Field goal, touchdown, field goal, TD, TD, field goal to take a 29-0 lead.
To end the half, they did something they’ve rarely done this year: They perfectly executed a 2-minute drive. Dalton hit Tyler Eifert for 13 yards and the TD with :07 left in the half.
“When he’s got time to set his feet,” Eifert said, “he’s money. He threw a lot of good balls today.”
For just a moment, it looked like 2015 again.
“It was big,” Dalton said. “We knew we had a chance. Tyler made a great catch in the end zone. That was a big play because we knew we were getting the ball to start the second half.”
The win left the locker room a lot happier and a lot more confident. It’s hard to pinpoint why the Bengals were so much better Sunday. The simple explanation: It finally clicked.
“You’ve got to find a way to put it together,” Whitworth said. “Once you do, bottle and get on a roll.”
Cornerback Adam Jones thinks the Bengals can win out — run the table in the last five games.
“For some odd reason, I think we can win the rest of these games,” Jones said. “. . . Why not?”
If they play like Sunday, why not, indeed?