ATLANTA – The Cincinnati Bengals beat the Atlanta Falcons 37-36 on Sunday and improved to 3-1 after a grueling 16-play drive that ate up more than four minutes of clock and ended with a last-second touchdown from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green.
Here’s how they did it, from the perspective of the players on the field and on the sidelines.
4:15 remaining – Trailing 36-31, the Bengals start at their own 25-yard line after a touchback on the kickoff. With Joe Mixon sidelined with a knee injury for several games, Giovani Bernard has assumed lead-back duties. The Bengals are clearly content to run down some clock with one timeout remaining. With the defenses struggling on both sides, the intent is to score with as little time left as possible so the Falcons can’t drive back down the field. The Bengals start with a handoff to Bernard, who runs up the middle for a 4-yard gain on first-and-10.
3:37 remaining – On second-and-6, Dalton looks for Tyler Boyd, who has become one of the team's most reliable targets this season. Boyd is in one-on-one coverage with Desmond Trufant, who appears to have an arm wrapped around Boyd’s waist. Trufant knocks the ball out, and it falls incomplete with no penalty. It’s not the last time Dalton will look for Boyd.
3:33 remaining – The Falcons put double coverage on Green on third-and-6, so Dalton looks to Boyd crossing over the middle in single coverage. Boyd catches a 9-yard pass, enough to get the first down and move the chains.
2:54 remaining – Bernard takes the handoff through a hole opened by left guard Clint Boling, then tries to follow behind the block of center Trey Hopkins and right guard Alex Redmond. As Bernard tries to go to his right to find open space, he is tackled from behind. Bernard gets only 3 yards, but the clock keeps running.
2:31 remaining – The Bengals pick up the pace by going no-huddle, and Dalton is given time to throw by his linemen on second-and-7. He appears to find nobody open, so he rolls out of the pocket and scrambles to his left for an 11-yard pickup and a first down.
2:22 remaining – The Bengals are now in Atlanta territory at the Falcons’ 48-yard line, and Green is once again double-covered, leaving Boyd open underneath. Dalton chooses the underneath option, and Boyd makes an 11-yard reception to move the chains as the Bengals take the clock to the two-minute warning. This is the last play Bernard was in the game, and John Ross was also not able to play on the final drive due to an injury sustained earlier.
“I really didn't want to go out at all. It was tough for me to watch that final drive,” Ross said. “So many plays called. So many things I wanted to be in. I just didn't want to quit. I told A.J. and those guys on the sideline I don't want to quit, but they also told me to be smart.”
2:00 remaining – Mark Walton is now in the game for Bernard. Dalton drops back to throw, appears to see an open target and he begins his throwing motion with the pocket collapsing on him. However, with Falcons defender Vic Beasley swiping at the ball, Dalton seems to realize he might get sacked and scrambles out of it, running up the middle for a 2-yard gain and saving what could’ve been an ugly play.
1:30 remaining – The Bengals avert disaster again at the Atlanta 35-yard line on second-and-8. This time, Beasley does get to Dalton and swipes the ball out. Dalton jumps on top of it, and it’s initially ruled a strip/sack for a loss of 8 yards. Officials determine Dalton’s arm was going forward and change the ruling to an incomplete pass, saving both the loss of yardage and the Bengals’ final timeout.
1:26 remaining – The Bengals face third-and-8 needing a touchdown to win the game. A receiver is coming over the middle short of the sticks, while Boyd is running down the seam. The pass is nearly picked off by Trufant but falls incomplete, bringing up fourth down.
“I should have gotten that one,” Trufant told reporters. “It would have ended the game, but we still had a chance to win. I definitely want that one back.”
1:21 remaining – It’s do-or-die for the Bengals, who won't get the ball back if they don’t convert on fourth-and-8. Dalton doesn’t hesitate to go to Boyd over the middle again. His 11-yard reception gives the Bengals a fresh set of downs at the 24.
“Just a 12-yard stop route and I got him to overrun it, and I sat down perfectly and caught it for Andy,” Boyd said.
1:07 remaining – Dalton overthrows a pass in the direction of Boyd and Green near the sideline, but the play is negated anyway by a hands-to-the-face penalty on Cordy Glenn, who appeared to get his hands into Beasley’s helmet.
0:53 remaining – The Bengals back up 10 yards and face first-and-20, and they’re moving quickly now. Dalton throws a quick pass to Alex Erickson, whose 47-yard kickoff return earlier in the fourth quarter helped the Bengals eventually get into field goal position. Erickson’s reception gains 8 yards, but the clock keeps running.
0:30 remaining – Dalton throws another quick, short pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah, who took on a bigger role after tight end Tyler Eifert was hurt earlier in the game. Uzomah runs out of bounds at the 20 to stop the clock after a 6-yard gain, and the Bengals face third down again.
0:26 remaining – Dalton takes a shot at Green in the end zone and it looks like Green will easily score. However, Dalton’s pass sails over Green’s head and out of the back of the end zone. With fourth down coming up, the game is once again on the line.
“It was close, but we had several other opportunities,” Dalton said. “I think the next play it was third down and fourth down, TB made a great play, get the first, run after catch and it was just resilient. It’s what our guys were.”
0:22 remaining – It’s clear how much Boyd has earned Dalton’s trust when he goes to him again on fourth-and-6. Although the throw is short of the sticks, Boyd makes the catch and turns around to run for the first down, gaining the last yard with a defender hanging onto his foot. Boyd dives for the first down as another defender comes in and dives at him.
“He is taking advantage when [coverage] rolls over to [Green], he is getting some one-on-ones,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “He got grabbed a couple of times. They called one penalty but they grabbed on the interception, he got grabbed on the ball down the middle of the field there. In the fourth quarter when we were trying to score, he got tackled. The ball went off his hands over the middle and the guy grabs him around the waist and pulls him back. But that’s part of playing in there, you just have to keep fighting through it.”
Boyd pulls off his helmet and goes to the sideline as the Bengals call their final timeout, but despite appearing shaken up, he goes back in.
“My first reaction, I was just looking the DB in his eyes trying to see what coverage he was in and see if he would give that away to me, which I saw and knew they were in man,” Boyd said. “I knew I could set them up and beat them and make a good play for Andy if he needed me.”
Later, after the game had been won, Boyd would say he was too exhausted to even celebrate.
0:16 remaining – Dalton tries Erickson in the corner of the end zone on first-and-10 from the 13 with no timeouts left, but the ball is batted out of his hands. With chances slipping away, Dalton knows he has to make the next pass in the end zone work.
0:12 remaining – Green runs a corner route and splits two defenders, leaping sideways and sliding across the ground to pick up a 13-yard touchdown that would seal the game.
“A.J. made a hell of a play,” Lewis said. “Hell of a throw. Hell of a catch.”
Said Dalton: “I was hoping that they would give us enough room for me to fit it in there, and he made a great catch going down to get it. At that point in the game, it was like you’ve got to make a play. I’m glad that we had it set up where A.J. was able to make it and gave him the opportunity to win the game for us.”
After Green makes the play, Mixon, two weeks removed from a knee procedure, runs in from the sideline and tackles him. Dalton raises his arms in triumph as two of his offensive linemen grab him in a hug.
“It was just a corner route against Cover 2," Green said. "I released inside and the corner gave me a free release and I got up on the safety real quick and after that I knew it was over.”
Said Boyd: “I was so hurt I just stopped right there. I held my hands like, ‘Thank you.’ We were so hurt and so tired, but it’s just that extra pump when you want to win and you want to go out there and take something away from somebody. I just got that sense of urgency to do it. It was awesome.”
It was an exhausting drive for everyone, even Eifert, who was sitting in the training room. Uzomah went to find him after the game, and Eifert had been watching.
“That was nuts!” he told Uzomah.