John Clay: Bernard bursts out of shadows to carry Bengals to victory

Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, right, celebrated with running back Giovani Bernard after scoring a touchdown. Bernard didn't score but ran 20 times for 123 yards.
Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, right, celebrated with running back Giovani Bernard after scoring a touchdown. Bernard didn't score but ran 20 times for 123 yards. AP

CINCINNATI — We get it, with the Bengals, the regular-season results don't really count as long as Cincinnati makes the playoffs. That's when it matters. That's when the Bengals have bungled. We'll really start paying attention when it's January.

"We just have to keep on going," Coach Marvin Lewis said.

Yet what the Bengals did Sunday in beating the San Diego Chargers 24-19 showed why Lewis' club has an excellent shot at making the playoffs again and even, for once, finally, ultimately, making some noise in those playoffs.

Jeremy Hill is expected to be the Bengals' workhorse in the backfield. The second-year player out of LSU gained 1,124 yards on the ground his rookie year. He's big, powerful and has all the makings of something special. Sunday, however, the former first-round draft pick was especially awful.

Hill fumbled the ball away twice. The first giveaway came in the first quarter on a run up the middle when Hill was stripped as he was going to the ground. The second came in the third quarter when he butterfingered a pitchout from quarterback Andy Dalton.

Luckily, Cincinnati's defense kept the Chargers from turning the turnovers into points. But ...

"We can't have a back fumbling the ball," Lewis said afterward.

Enter Giovani Bernard, the 5-9, 205-pound, third-year speedster out of North Carolina who, of late, had been operating in Hill's shadow. Against San Diego, however, he kept popping out of the shadow and around Chargers tacklers.

By day's end, Bernard had gained 123 yards on 20 carries. He had five runs for double-digit yardage. He caught three passes for 16 yards. He was a major contributor to what is now a 2-0 Cincinnati start.

"We came out with the win," Bernard said. "And at the end of that day that's the biggest thing about me. I just want to win the game."

That's pure modesty. Fact is, with the emergence of Hill, Bernard got just 14 carries in Cincinnati's final three games of 2014, including just three carries in the playoff loss at Indianapolis.

"Gio is always ready to go," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "He's so electric with the ball. You never know what's going to happen when he's got it. He stepped up and played real big today."

It was Bernard's second career 100-yard rushing game. His first came when he gained 137 yards in that 37-37 tie with Carolina last October.

"We have a lot of weapons," Bernard said.

That they do. Tight end Tyler Eifert caught five passes, including a nine-yard score on a perfect rope from Dalton that put the Bengals up 24-13 with 8:49 left.

That was the last of Dalton's three touchdown passes. A.J. Green made a terrific leaping catch for a 16-yard score in the first quarter. And Dalton hit wide out Marvin Jones with a perfect 45-yard bomb in the second quarter.

"It's great to have Marvin back," said Dalton of the fourth-year receiver who missed last season with an injury.

Even offensive tackle Jake Fisher got in on the act, hauling in a wide open flat pass on a tackle-eligible play that gained 31 yards. Had Fisher ever caught a pass before? "No," said the second-round pick. "I did recover a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown."

"One career catch," joked teammate Eric Winston in the next locker, "and zero career yards after the catch."

"I don't even think we got that good of a look in practice," Dalton said.

So far, the Bengals are looking good as they head into next Sunday's road trip to division rival Baltimore. Not to worry, Hill will be back. He's too talented a runner to stay out of the lineup.

"I can't let this affect me," he said afterward. "We all know what happened and it'll get us beat in another game."

Thanks to Bernard, no harm, no foul.

"It's early," Lewis said. "It was a good football game."

Also a good example of why these Bengals would be a disappointment if they don't make the playoffs. Then we'll see what happens.