DETROIT -- The days of nicknaming Cincinnati's football team the Baby Bengals are officially done.
Finished. Kaput. Finito.
No more is this a fresh-faced group, wondering which way to turn, who to block and where to run. These days, the Queen City's club is a team of grown men who know exactly what to do when a game gets in doubt, and when the line between a win or a loss becomes razor-thin.
On Sunday, during yet another one of their big regular-season road games, the Bengals proved as much when, as time expired, they picked up a 27-24 win against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mike Nugent's game-ending field goal was his second in as many weeks and helped send a message to the rest of the league: This is one bad (the John Shaft kind of bad) team that seriously thinks it will end its season at MetLife Stadium.
If they keep grinding out victories like their past two, the Bengals have good reason to believe a Super Bowl appearance could be in their future. That's because, again, these aren't the Baby Bengals you've come to know the past few years. Defining wins such as these are signs they're maturing.
Last week, on the road in front of a hostile Buffalo crowd, the Bengals overcame a fourth-quarter rally by outlasting the Bills in overtime. Nugent's 43-yard field goal midway through the period led to another 27-24 win. It was one that helped lay the foundation for Sunday's victory over a team that came in with the same record, a similar physical makeup on the offensive and defensive lines, and its own solid quarterback-receiver tandem that had big-play potential. All last week, the Bengals felt confident that if they could beat this mirror image of themselves, they finally could begin letting the rest of the football universe know what they already did: that they are pretty good.
"It means we're growing up," 24-year-old defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "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."
Cincinnati was so young last season that its opening-weekend 53-man roster ranked as the third-youngest in the NFL. After making a few tweaks this offseason, it entered 2013 as the 12th-youngest.
How fitting it was then, that on the day the Bengals faced the team that was the league's oldest in Week 1, Cincinnati would pull out perhaps its biggest win of the season.
"It's a win where the young guys and this team had to grow up and win the game by whatever it takes," eight-year veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "Two weeks in a row we've shown that. That's one of the biggest things you take from this. Is it perfect? Are there things that need to be better? Heck yeah. But this football team, two weeks in a row, with the game on the line, found a way to win. That's really where you want to be."
He's right. It is. But in order to understand where the Bengals were Sunday, you have to understand how they got there. It wasn't easy.
The Bengals have played physical games all season, but this one in Detroit may have been one of their most intense of the year. They certainly boarded the plane late Sunday banged and bruised in ways they hadn't been all year.
In all, seven players were evaluated for injuries at some point during the game. Two of them, cornerback Leon Hall and backup defensive tackle Devon Still, didn't return. Hall's Achilles injury is a "significant" one, according to coach Marvin Lewis. Still's injury is less severe, but could require him to miss some time.
As beat up as the Bengals were, they made it through this game thanks to their young stars. Specifically, it was the play of reserve cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and roving defensive back Taylor Mays who helped plug in the hole Hall left. It was the gritty play of backup defensive tackle Brandon Thompson that helped alleviate any issues caused with Still's departure. On offense, it was quarterback Andy Dalton's 372-yard, three-touchdown performance, and A.J. Green's six-catch, 155-yard effort that helped keep the offense running while the defensive stars were falling out.
On the game-winning drive, third-year Bengals receiver Dane Sanzenbacher and rookie running back Giovani Bernard caught a pair of passes that pushed the Bengals, with less than 30 seconds, from their own territory and into a position where the veteran Nugent could forget his earlier miss, clear his mind as an elder player should, and deliver the clutch make.
"That's just poise," veteran Reggie Nelson said. "We always preach poise. And we did a good job of that [Sunday]. We just have to keep on grinding."
The more the Bengals grind, the more they trim up, shape up and clean up, the more they can put the Baby Bengals moniker behind them.
"This is a huge step forward," Whitworth said. "Does it mean you're world-beaters? No. You've got a lot of work to do. But, man, heck. It's a heck of a win."
It's a grown-man win.