CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis never wavered in the face of the game's biggest gamble.
Although his offense has been wheezing for nearly a month under the burden of injuries along the offensive line, Lewis didn't even take a timeout to consider the options before calling the biggest play of a 17-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
With about nine minutes remaining and his team facing fourth-and-1 from the Panthers' 35-yard line, Lewis called for his team to go for it. Not just go for the first down, but go for it all.
Lewis put the ball in the hands of Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Chad Johnson, calling for a long sideline pass rather than the more conventional power run. After a 32-yard gain on a diving catch by Johnson over the solid coverage of Chris Gamble, the show of sheer confidence was like something from a ruthless gangster.
"That wasn't ballsy, that was some 'Scarface' [stuff]," said Johnson, whose play set the stage for a 1-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh to give the Bengals the lead for the first time with 8:12 remaining.
The question going forward is whether that play can become the turning point for the Bengals, who entered the game with a two-game losing streak and some serious questions. Cincinnati, which left the game with a 4-2 mark and sole possession of first place in the AFC North, had scored 13 points in each of the two losses, and this game had the makings of an unlucky trifecta.
The Bengals went the better part of the first half without a first down, and Palmer was developing a very close relationship with the turf for much of that time.
Instead of backing down in fear, Lewis essentially said – to put it in Scarface terms – "Say hello to my little friend."
"Sometimes you know things that people are going to do," said Lewis, who then added the key element to his thinking. "We've got to attack. That's been our word, all the time … We definitely wanted to go vertical on that play."
Said Palmer: "We are an aggressive team. Our mentality is aggressive."
Lewis played down the gamble after the game, but it was strong on many levels. Beyond the troubles with his offense, Lewis is a defensive coach. Usually, such coaches are more inclined to punt and play for field position or simply take a low-risk approach, like a dive play.
Lewis couldn't have been blamed for playing more conservatively. His defense hadn't allowed a third-down conversion since the first quarter and had allowed the Panthers into Cincinnati territory only once in the second half to that point.
Instead, Lewis made a statement of sorts to his team, which depends on an explosive offense.
"That's about having confidence in all of us," Bengals running back Rudi Johnson said. "Coach went right after them when he knew [the Panthers] were loading up to stop me."
Of course, there were other critical moments like this throughout the game. Carolina had a chance to push its lead to at least 10 points in the second quarter. Instead, the Panthers botched a second-and-1 situation from the Cincinnati 35 and had to punt.
That allowed the Bengals, who didn't get a first down until their fifth possession of the game, to figure out a key adjustment. The Bengals came out in a no-huddle attack to solve the consistency problems and didn't have another three-and-out the rest of the game.
After getting the lead, all that remained was to protect it.
Carolina, which has turned the close game into an art form with five of its seven games decided by a field goal or less, challenged one time.
Getting the ball back with 5:04 remaining at its own 19-yard line, Carolina took just more than a minute to drive to the Bengals' 10. But on third-and-goal, Delhomme threw toward wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson at the back of the end zone. Delhomme badly underthrew the ball, and it was intercepted by safety Kevin Kaesviharn.
The odd part is that Delhomme didn't need to gamble on the throw. The Panthers needed only a field goal to tie the game and perhaps force overtime.
Then again, it was the first time Delhomme has been intercepted inside an opponent's 10-yard line in his career.
Such is the life of the gambler.
- Marvin Lewis