Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' season has ended, and coaching changes have kicked off the unofficial start to the offseason, we're counting down the 10 plays that helped shape the Bengals' 11-5, AFC North championship year.
Big plays, particularly those from Cincinnati's defense, and explosive ones from the likes of Giovani Bernard, were critical to the way 2013 played out.
As is the case with most top 10 lists, determining these plays was completely subjective. They could be placed in virtually any slot among these 10, or not among them at all. Some certainly won't make the cut that many believe should. It's the nature of lists. Somewhere a cut-off has to come. Anyway, let's get to it, starting off with No. 10:
NELSON BLITZES STAFFORD
When: Oct. 20, 2013
Where: Ford Field, where the Bengals beat the Detroit Lions, 27-24.
What happened: Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer called for a third-and-4 safety blitz that put Reggie Nelson in position to pull off the momentum-turning play of the game. Before the play started, there were 40 seconds left in regulation with the score tied at 24. Cincinnati was coming off an overtime win at Buffalo the week before and wasn't looking to head to another extra period if it could help it.
As Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was making his final line checks, he was confronted by a seven-man Bengals box that looked set on sending the full arsenal toward him. Six ended up rushing, with Nelson coming off the blind-side edge, untouched. Once Stafford felt the pressure, it was too late. He rolled right and threw an incomplete pass to the turf to avoid taking a sack deep in his own territory. The incompletion came in part to Nelson's ability to hook his right arm around Stafford's throwing arm as he tried to deliver the pass.
Five seconds later, Lions punter Sam Martin shanked a 28-yard punt into his sideline to set up positive field position for Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense. Four plays and 15 yards later, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent was called upon to bury his second game-winning field goal in as many weeks. This time, with the seconds expiring, Nugent slammed through a 45-yard field goal that gave Cincinnati its fifth win of the season. The Bengals were 5-2.
What they said about it: Nugent: "I love how confident everyone always is. Nobody freaks out [when tied or losing]. It all begins with [coach Marvin Lewis] because he and his staff don't get too high or too low."
Nelson: "That's just poise. We always preach poise. And we did a good job of that. We just have to keep on grinding."
Martin: "I thought they were going to try blocking the punt and I rushed myself. I was trying to put the ball on the sideline and keep it away from the returner, and I pulled it."
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap: "It means we're growing up. We're going to need this win right here down the road when we play a few other good teams on the road. Teams like this help build our confidence and make us grow up. We had a young football team last year and now we're older."
How the Bengals' season was impacted: It was clear that win gave the Bengals a jolt of confidence as they headed into their eighth game of the season at home against the Jets the following week. By winning back-to-back games in dramatic fashion on the road to a pair of teams that had snatched a few big wins of their own that early in the season, the Bengals felt some sense of validation. Like Dunlap said, they really had grown up.
After shutting down the Jets 49-9 in the next game, the Bengals were riding high at 6-2, and in the middle of a four-game winning streak that was ultimately halted on the road in a Week 9 Thursday night thriller at Miami. In the preseason, Lewis compartmentalized the season. He felt if his team could win all of its home games and take a few tough early road games like the ones at Buffalo and Detroit, it had a chance to be pretty good. The Bengals went 8-0 at home all year and were 2-2 on the road during the first half of the season.