CINCINNATI – The Bengals had just enough left to get a victory that moved them to the verge of the playoffs.
Andy Dalton threw a pair of touchdown passes, and Cincinnati withstood yet another fourth-quarter comeback by Arizona, holding on for a 23-16 victory Saturday that kept the Bengals in the running for a wild card.
Another small crowd at Paul Brown Stadium saw the Bengals (9-6) secure only their third winning record in the past 21 years and move a game ahead of the New York Jets for the final AFC wild card. The Jets fell to 8-7 with a 29-14 loss to the Giants on Saturday.
The Bengals can clinch the playoff berth with a win at home next week over Baltimore.
Dalton threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham and a 19-yarder to Jerome Simpson, who did a somersault over a defender and landed on both feet in the end zone. Dalton joined Peyton Manning (26), Charlie Conerly (22) and Dan Marino (20) as the only NFL rookies to throw 20 touchdowns.
Down 23-0 heading into the fourth quarter, the NFL's best comeback team nearly pulled off its most improbable one yet. Arizona (7-8) took advantage of Cedric Benson's two fumbles, getting a pair of touchdown passes by John Skelton and Jay Feely's field goal with 3:16 left.
The Cardinals had their chance to pull even. Early Doucet got behind the defense on a fourth-down play from the Cincinnati 17-yard line, but tripped at the goal line and fell, letting the pass fall incomplete.
Arizona got the ball one last time, but the clock ran out on them after a completion, ending the Cardinals' four-game winning streak and their playoff chances.
Cincinnati's defense dominated the first three quarters. Arizona didn't cross midfield until Skelton completed a pass with 13:25 to go.
Skelton started for the second consecutive week in place of Kevin Kolb, who hasn't fully recovered from a concussion. Skelton was 23 of 44 for 297 yards with three interceptions and five sacks that helped the Bengals get the 23-0 lead.
It could have been worse. Mike Nugent, the NFL's most accurate kicker, missed field goals of 35 and 48 yards in the first half.
Arizona has rallied from fourth-quarter deficits six times this season, one shy of the NFL record. The Cardinals have won three games in overtime, tying the league record.
With another comeback nearly in their grasp Saturday, they stumbled at the goal line.
Dalton was 18 of 31 for 154 yards and two touchdowns on a sunny, 39-degree afternoon in front of only 41,273 fans, leaving the stadium one-third empty.
Dalton's second touchdown pass had a highlight finish.
Simpson got open for a catch-and-run to the goal line. With Daryl Washington between him and the end zone, Simpson jumped and twirled past the linebacker, landing on both feet in the end zone and raising both arms like a gymnast who just stuck the landing.
For most of the game, the Cardinals couldn't do anything right. Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson picked off a Dalton pass in the third quarter, but the interception was nullified by Arizona's second roughing-the-passer penalty of the game.
Worse, Peterson hurt his left hamstring on the play, pulling up on the return. The first-round pick left the game. The team said after the game that it was only a sprain.