If ignorance is bliss, then the Cincinnati Bengals may just be the most oblivious team in the NFL.
How else could you explain a rookie quarterback leading consecutive fourth- quarter comebacks as if it was the normal thing to do? How else could you explain a defense holding the top ranking in the league despite losing one of its best players in free agency this past offseason?
How else do you explain the Bengals being 3-2 and looking to win three straight for the first time in two years when they could just as easily be riding a four-game losing streak?
"We're so inexperienced, so young that they have this 'Let's go' kind of thing where they just don't worry about it," head coach Marvin Lewis said of his Bengals.
Ignorance is bliss.
The Bengals weren't expected to do big things this year after former franchise quarterback Carson Palmer opted to retire rather than try to get the club into the playoffs for just the third time in 21 years when his trade request was denied. That forced 2011 second-round pick Andy Dalton into a starting role, and the TCU product has showed a lot of smarts beneath his flaming red hair.
The 23-year-old has been far from perfect; his two interceptions versus Buffalo on Oct. 2 put his team in an early hole and made it look as if the Bengals would lose a third straight game. However, he ran for the game-tying score late in that contest -- his first career rushing touchdown -- and later helped set up a game-winning field goal by Mike Nugent as time expired.
Dalton was at it again this past weekend, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in a 30-20 victory over Jacksonville. The signal-caller showed he has the stomach to survive pressure situations, connecting with tight end Jermaine Gresham for a nine-yard pass on 4th-and-6 at the Jacksonville 19 with the game on the line. Three plays later, Bernard Scott found the end zone from two yards out to put the Bengals up for good.
"It was nice to see him have some success today," said running back Cedric Benson afterward. "It's nice to see him grow as a professional. It's always exciting to see a young man be successful in a clutch moment."
While Dalton and fellow rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, who has pulled in three touchdown passes in five games, have injected some energy into the offense, it is the Bengals' defense that is making life easier for the duo. Cincinnati ranks first overall in the league in total defense and is yielding under 20 points per game, despite the loss of free agent cornerback Johnathan Joseph over the summer.
In fact, Dalton's heroics versus the Jaguars wouldn't have been possible if not for a pair of defensive stands in the second quarter.
Early in the frame, the Jags marched to the Bengals' two-yard line, but third- year linebacker Rey Maualuga broke up a pass attempt in the end zone before Thomas Howard took down Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew for a seven-yard loss. The Jaguars had to settle for a field goal despite having a 1st-and-goal, the same fate they suffered on their next drive even though they had the ball at the Cincinnati five again on first down.
"We were relentless," Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "Even though [the Jaguars] made some good plays, I think our old team would have folded, but this is a new squad and we have a lot of heart on this team."
Dalton himself mirrored those comments.
"We've got a lot of fight and a lot of heart," said Dalton, "and it's fun to see that on the sidelines."
Whether it is in fact heart or just inexperience -- or perhaps a little of both -- these youthful Bengals are looking like serious contenders in the AFC North.
BIG BEN STANDS TALL
It was just Pittsburgh's quarterback doing his job.
Though Tomlin had already announced during the week that Roethlisberger was likely to play Sunday against the Tennessee Titans despite a sprained left foot that left him wearing a special cleat, many were left wondering just how effective he would be, or even how long he would last.
The answer didn't seem to shock Roethlisberger or his head coach.
Roethlisberger connected on a franchise high-tying five touchdown passes, a record he had already previously shared with Terry Bradshaw and Mark Malone, in the Steelers' 38-17 victory over Tennessee. He is, however, now the only Steelers quarterback to have a pair of five-touchdown games, and he also became the second signal-caller in club history to go over 150 career touchdown passes (Bradshaw, 212).
"I'm not the only guy playing with an injury. I'm not going to complain about it," said Roethlisberger, who was often limping between plays. "More impressively and more importantly is how guys have stepped up and filled in for people. I don't think I have enough time to name all the guys. There were so many. I'm just so proud of them."
By fighting through the pain, Roethlisberger pumped some much-needed life into the Steelers' season. He went into the game with three passing touchdowns and nine turnovers, including five interceptions, but completed 24-of-34 pass attempts for 228 yards to help Pittsburgh avoid falling below .500 with a 3-2 record.
"I just don't want to let my guys down," added the quarterback. "I want to give them my best. I'll be there until they take me off in a cart, which has happened before."
Roethlisberger won't get much time to heal, as the Steelers don't get their bye week until Nov. 20, leaving five more games on the schedule until then. That includes some likely physical encounters with New England, Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Still, don't expect Tomlin to take it easy on his franchise player.
"We expect him to play well. He's an A-player," said Tomlin of Roethlisberger. "He's got to play "A" for us in order for us to do well."