The Bengals, after all, led the Cleveland Browns by 23 points and faced a third-and-6 on the Browns' 10-yard line. The player destined to tote the rock was fourth-string halfback Rex Burkhead, who, logic suggested, would grind out a couple of unremarkable yards and send players and coaches from both teams streaming onto the field for hugs and handshakes.
What happened next had nothing to do with logic and everything to do with the emotional core of an overlooked team driving toward a fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs. It turned out that "92 Weak" was the ultimate show of strength on a day in which the Bengals, in Jackson's words, played "Big Boy Football" and made a certain rookie quarterback look impossibly small.
"Those are the special ones -- the ones you remember," said backup right tackle Eric Winston, who paved Burkhead's path to paydirt. "We know it's coming. They know it's coming. It's that ultimate theory of football, kind of an old-school, high-school mentality. When it's out there like that and they still can't stop it, it's pretty deep. And when you're able to do that, you've kinda won on a different level."
For Jackson, a man enduring one of the worst weeks of his life, it was a symbolic reward for a job well done by his highly motivated players.
"That touchdown might not have seemed like it mattered, but it matters to me," Jackson said shortly before leaving FirstEnergy Stadium and heading alone to the airport, where he would board a flight to Los Angeles in preparation for his father's funeral on Tuesday. "It matters because those guys have been fighting hard all week to shake the memory of our last game against these guys -- I rode them, I got on them and I challenged them -- and they went out and did everything I could have asked of them.
"So yeah, in that moment, you want to finish the job."
» It reversed the wreckage of the two teams' previous meeting, a 24-3 Cleveland victory on "Thursday Night Football" last month in which the visiting Browns dominated the trenches and made Dalton look utterly lost. This time, Dalton didn't have to put up big numbers -- the longest of his 14 completions went for 15 yards -- because the other quarterback was completely out of his depth.
» Lewis' players did their coach a solid by bailing him out, at least somewhat, for his radio interview with Cincinnati's WLW-AM last Monday in which he dismissively referred to the 6-foot Manziel as a "midget." Lewis later apologized twice -- first to Manziel and the Browns, and later to people of short stature -- but the Bengals clearly embraced the underlying dismissiveness of his message, which came in response to a question about how Manziel's mobility might impact Cincinnati's defensive approach. "You've got to," said defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, who had one of the Bengals' three sacks of Manziel. "We're all family, man. That's our head man. We play for him, baby. We had his back."
Bengals defenders also had Manziel on his back for much of his first NFL start, channeling the hype over the polarizing former Heisman Trophy winner's debut into an utterly dominant performance.
Whereas Cincinnati struggled against since-displaced Browns starter Brian Hoyer back on Nov. 6, the team's first encounter with Johnny Football was a comprehensive suffocation of epic proportions. Before Sunday's game, one person familiar with the Bengals' defensive game plan crystallized it thusly: "I think they're gonna try to break him in half."
It didn't play out in a fashion that grisly, but the forecast wasn't that far from reality.
Harassed all afternoon as if confronted by an overly aggressive hug-seekingBrowns fan at 2 a.m., Manziel completed 10 of 18 passes for 80 yards and ran for another 13 on five attempts. He threw a pair of first-half interceptions; a third, to linebacker Rey Maualuga, was nullified by a neutral-zone infraction. On the previous play, Maualuga had been flagged for a 15-yard taunting penalty after deflecting a Manziel pass and getting up in his face to make the rookie's trademark money hand gesture, one of numerous times Bengals defenders did so in mock tribute.
"This is what this game's about -- when you get between the lines, you see if you can rattle someone and get under his skin," said veteran cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, who picked off Manziel's hanging end-zone heave for Taylor Gabriel late in the first half. "I think we played with an edge today. It's a lot different playing quarterback on this level. There are some throws you can get away with in college that you can't throw in the NFL, against this kind of speed."
Said Maualuga: "The sacks, the incompletions, the interceptions ... it all kind of flustered him a bit, got him out of rhythm. The whole week, the talk was about him -- about what he was gonna do to us and this and that. I think we made a statement."
Two hours before the game, as he sat on a heated bench on the Bengals' sideline, Jackson made a few statements of his own. He was grieving, having learned Monday night that his father, John, passed away -- and he was also seething. Compounding the bitterness of the early November defeat to the Browns was a postgame quote from Cleveland middle linebacker Karlos Dansby (who would sit out Sunday's game with a knee injury): "We knew what was coming. So we were all over it."
To Jackson, the insinuation that the Browns had been able to predict his play calls was downright insulting.
"We'll see if they say that after this game," Jackson said defiantly. "I've got some things in store for them, but the bottom line is, it's really not about what I call. We need to get after them, dominate up front and kick their ass. That's what football's about this time of year. If things go as planned, I may set a record for rushing attempts, because we're going to try to ram it right down their throat.
"And if it goes the way I think it will, by the end of the game I'll be able to yell over to their sideline and tell them exactly what's coming, and they still won't be able to stop it."
In fairness, Jackson might as well have done that from the Bengals' first play from scrimmage, a 3-yard Hill carry behind left guard on which the Cincinnati offensive line came out firing like dudes trying to push an F-150 off a cliff. Consistently employing "Jumbo" formations featuring extra linemen as de facto tight ends, Jackson called runs on the following three plays, with Hill gaining 7, 8 and 6 yards, respectively. Seven minutes into the game, the bruising rookie plowed into the end zone from 2 yards out, completing a 14-play, 81-yard drive that was as tone-setting as Jackson could have imagined. The A-hole serenade followed, a reaction from Browns fans to Hill's declaration after the first meeting that Cleveland was "not that good."
"(Jackson) challenged us up front to come in here and control the game, and I thought from the first snap we did that," Winston said. "Don't think we didn't watch the film from that last meeting and get offended, because we did."
Said left tackle Andrew Whitworth: "We knew coming into this game what our agenda was, what we were here for. That opening drive, all the energy in the stadium ... we just went out and did what we wanted to do. Heck, with all the hype (over Manziel), I didn't even know if people knew we were the ones playing -- and we're in first place in the division.
"And yeah, it was a tough week for (Jackson). We knew we had to rally around him."
To Hill, who might have absorbed his most punishing blow of the day from the Browns fan who stiff-armed him back onto the playing field following his Dawg Pound sojourn to celebrate a 16-yard touchdown run in the second quarter ("He should probably be signed up to play DB -- I learned my lesson," Hill joked afterward), Jackson's performance was as impressive as that of the men he coaches.
"Hue did a great job mixing it up, keeping them off balance and taking the pressure off of Andy," he said. "We know how much Hue loves his team and loves his job. He puts so much into this. We knew how tough this week was for him. He probably didn't get too much sleep. We really went out there and played for him."
That helps explain why Hill, after Burkhead's finishing touchdown, raced from the Bengals' sideline to greet the second-year pro in the end zone with an emphatic chest-bump. A few minutes later, he choked up as Lewis presented game balls to Nugent and Jackson who, Hill said, "broke down" upon receiving it.
With tough games remaining against the Broncos and Steelers, the Bengals still face a challenging path when it comes to defending their AFC North title, and another playoff appearance is hardly guaranteed. But when Jackson returns to the team Wednesday, he'll be comforted by the notion that his players seem wholly capable of rising to the occasion.
"Now is the time when we've got to come out and play Big Boy Football, and that's what we're striving to do," Jackson said as he walked toward the stadium exit. "It was a hard week, but I couldn't leave my guys. My dad would've wanted me to be with them, to do my job, and to finish this thing."
He and the Bengals did, reducing Johnny Football to a befuddled afterthought. And rest assured that when Jackson made his final call of a fruitful day -- and Burkhead applied a finishing touch -- there was nothing weak about it.