CINCINNATI (AP) — For 59 minutes, the Cincinnati Bengals can look like an absolute mess, botching kicks and throwing away chances. In the final minute, they become a totally different team.

A first-place team, no less.

The NFL’s ultimate high-wire act is 3-1 and tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North following its 23-20 overtime victory in Cleveland. All the Bengals’ games have been decided in the last 14 seconds, packing those closing minutes with as much drama as most teams get in a season.

They know they can’t keep living on the edge much longer.

“Whew!” offensive guard Bobbie Williams said. “We’ve got to quit making it hard on ourselves. We’ve got to stop doing that.”

They can’t seem to help themselves.

The Bengals came into the season determined to control the ball by running it and letting Carson Palmer — back from an elbow injury — make throws as needed. The new formula hasn’t gotten them very far, forcing them to resort to Palmer’s improvisation in the final minutes each week.

Then, it all comes together.

In Cleveland, the Bengals went more than 2½ quarters without a first down, seven straight possessions of totally futility against a winless team. When they got the ball back with 6:34 left and the Browns up 20-14, their missing confidence clicked back in.

“When we walked out on the field and I looked at the clock and it said six minutes, I said, ‘Well, golly, we’ve been here before,'” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “And I told the guys: ‘Six minutes, this is just like we like it.’ Sure enough, we go down and score. That’s how we’ve been; we’ve been able to respond when we had to, and I think that’s a good quality.”

Of course, they couldn’t make it easy on themselves. After Palmer threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Chad Ochocinco with 1:55 to go, the Bengals had the extra point blocked, forcing overtime. Again, they did next-to-nothing until they got the ball at their own 20-yard line with 3:23 left.

Another great escape was unfolding.

In a 23-20 win over Pittsburgh a week earlier, the Bengals converted a fourth-and-10 on their winning drive before Palmer’s touchdown pass with 14 seconds left. In Cleveland, coach Marvin Lewis considered punting when faced with fourth-and-11 at the Cleveland 41-yard line with 64 seconds to go in overtime.

Then, he reconsidered. Palmer came to the sideline and told Lewis the Bengals should go for it. Lewis went along, Palmer scrambled 15 yards, and Shayne Graham won it with a 31-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.

After the game, Palmer praised Lewis for being open-minded and willing to change his strategy on the fourth-down play. On Monday, Lewis said he doesn’t put much stock in players’ suggestions, choosing to trust his own instincts.

Lewis acknowledged that he took a big risk by going for it rather than punting. If the play didn’t work, the Browns would have gotten the ball near midfield with enough time to move into field goal range.

“That was probably the riskiest thing to do,” Lewis said. “But it worked out well. The guys did a good job converting. I felt comfortable with the offensive play call, that we had an opportunity for the first down. Things didn’t go that way, and Carson made a good play on his own.”

In three of the first four games, things have gone their way with the seconds ticking down.

Palmer drove the Bengals 91 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Denver, leading the Bengals to a touchdown with 38 seconds left. Then, Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley took a tipped pass 87 yards for a touchdown and a 12-7 win with 11 seconds remaining.

A week later, the Bengals got ahead by 10 points at Green Bay, only to watch the Packers kick a field goal and recover the onside kick. Green Bay drove to the 10-yard line, where a false-start penalty with a couple seconds to go resulted in a 10-second runoff.

This time, they had survived.

The drive against Pittsburgh got them their first home victory over the Steelers since 2001. The two clutch drives in Cleveland got them a share of first place for the first time since they beat the Ravens to open the 2007 season.

The Bengals know they’re in first place because of what they’ve done in those final, frantic minutes.

“Right now, we’re riding the wave of that,” Lewis said.


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