CINCINNATI — If Limas Sweed holds onto the ball in the end zone or Joe Flacco hits his wide-open receiver down the sideline, nobody is talking about the Cincinnati Bengals as a surprise team. They'd be back in the pack, trying to catch up to the big boys.
Sweed dropped it. Flacco overthrew it. And everyone in the AFC North is chasing Cincinnati, a team that's sitting in first place because of a newfound knack for living on the edge.
The Bengals (4-1) have been the NFL's ultimate high-wire act. Every one of their games has come down to the final 22 seconds. All but once, the final ticks have gone their way. A 17-14 victory in Baltimore on Sunday left the Bengals in sole possession of first place with their best start in four years.
Real? Or mirage?
The Bengals acknowledge that there's luck involved. If Sweed catches the ball in the third quarter, the Steelers are in control and likely headed for another win. If Flacco gets the ball to Mark Clayton with less than three minutes left on Sunday, there's no room for Carson Palmer's brilliance.
They have been fortunate.
But there's much more to it. The Bengals have put themselves in position to pull off their improbable wins by playing impressive defense, getting brilliance under pressure from their 29-year-old quarterback, and showing more sustained poise and grit than any Bengals team in the last 20 years.
Something seems different about this team.
"I honestly feel it's been a good thing that we've had these close games," safety Roy Williams said. "You hear about teams that once another team will score and there's only a minute left, they just kind of give up. This team doesn't quit at any time. That's the most reassuring thing for a team."
The biggest difference is in the defense, which has been Cincinnati's downfall for so long. The Bengals have invested a lot of high draft picks and a lot of free-agent money in the unit over the last four years, and they're getting returns.
Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (first-round pick in 2006) and Leon Hall (first-rounder in 2007) have been shutting down opponents' top receivers. Linebackers Keith Rivers (first-rounder in 2008) and Rey Maualuga (second-rounder in 2009) have brought toughness. End Antwan Odom (second year of a five-year, $29.5 million deal) is tied for the league lead with eight sacks.
Inspired to win for coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose wife died a few days earlier, the defense held the Ravens' highly ranked offense to seven points on Sunday, its best showing yet.
"I still think we're a work in progress," safety Chinedum Ndukwe said. "I don't think the defense is really playing up to where it should be playing. We're still doing a lot of things wrong, but the effort and intensity we approach the game with covers up a lot of the mistakes we make."
The defense has kept games close enough for Palmer to rescue at the end, showing he's far from finished.
Since he led the Bengals to the division title and a playoff appearance in 2005 – Cincinnati's only winning season in the last 18 years – Palmer has been sidetracked by severe injuries. He tore up his left knee during the 2005 playoff loss to Pittsburgh, then tore a ligament and tendon in his passing elbow last season.
The Bengals have reinvented themselves as more of a running team this season – Cedric Benson leads the league in rushing – and taken the load off Palmer, who has been ordinary until the final minutes.
In his first five seasons, Palmer led only seven fourth-quarter drives for wins. He has done it each of the last three weeks, and would have had yet another in the opener against Denver if not for the Broncos' tipped touchdown play.
During those four last-minute drives, Palmer has completed 66 percent of his throws and has a passer rating of 112.8, which is quite extraordinary. The rest of the time, he has completed 56 percent of his throws and has a below-average rating of 67.4. Overall, he's ranked 24th in the league in passing.
His calmness in the clutch has rubbed off on everyone around him.
"Whenever one of those situations happen, we know we've been there before," Williams said. "With Carson having the ball in the last seconds, I'm putting my money on Carson."
By beating Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore in consecutive weeks with defense and drama, the Bengals have put themselves in control of the AFC North. They're 3-0 in the division with a pair of road wins. They spend the next four weeks at home – games against Houston, Chicago and Baltimore along with a bye.
The second half of the schedule includes games against Oakland (1-4), Cleveland (1-4), Detroit (1-4) and Kansas City (0-5). Even if their luck runs out, they're in good shape so long as their confidence holds out and Palmer stays healthy.
Fluky or not, those dramatic wins have changed a lot.
"It's a confidence builder," Hall said. "It will help us out in December – and, hopefully, in January."