Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle runs back one of his two interception returns for a touchdown during Sunday's 35-27 win in Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI – Antrel Rolle didn't get to start after all.
Yet it didn't stop him from having the biggest defensive impact in an offensive game Sunday against the Bengals.
Relegated to his normal nickel cornerback role once the gimpy Eric Green was able to start, Rolle twice returned interceptions for touchdowns, spurring the Cardinals to a crucial and emotional 35-27 road victory at Paul Brown Stadium.
And Rolle's third interception of the game ended Cincinnati's final threat – a pick on which Rolle also returned for a score, only to have it called back on a penalty.
"There are a lot of things that could be better defensively," said Rolle, after the Cardinals (5-5) forced five turnovers for a second straight game. "But are we jelling? Absolutely."
The Cards whooped and hollered in the locker room after the game, celebrating what they hope is a watershed victory.
The Cards next two games are at home, against San Francisco and Cleveland.
"To see the valor of this team to come back when they made a run, it makes me so proud," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "The ones you take home most are the ones right here."
The airshow predicted between the two teams never quite materialized. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner threw for two touchdowns in the first half – one each to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin while picking apart the weak Bengals secondary – while Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 19-yard touchdown on the Bengals' first possession.
But Palmer could never get away from Rolle and the Cards' defense. Besides Rolle's three interceptions, linebacker Karlos Dansby had one to start the second half which set up an Edgerrin James' touchdown run.
Bengals receiver Chad Johnson also had a fumble inside the Cardinals' 20-yard line that was recovered by safety Terrence Holt.
The Cardinals knew the Bengals would get some yards. Palmer finished with 329 yards passing, the first time in 14 games the Cardinals surrendered more than 300 yards. But while Houshmandzadeh, Johnson and Chris Henry each had eight catches (for 87, 86 and 81 yards, respectively), the big plays were held to a minimum.
The Cardinals were also without Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson, who sat out with his heel injury.
"We're just running what we are practicing every week," Dansby said. "It looks good and it feels good.
"It's November. If you want to go to the dance, you gotta go all out."
The Cardinals needed their defense, because the offense, after punching in a touchdown for a 28-13 lead early in the third quarter, all but stopped.
The Cards managed just 30 yards total offense after that point, and the Bengals got a blocked punt for a touchdown by DeDe Dorsey to slice the lead to 28-27 at one point.
"We didn't play the best second half offensively," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "But we found a way to respond."
That was through Rolle and the defense. With the Bengals driving near midfield at the end of the third quarter, Rolle – whose first pick was returned 55 yards and tied the game at seven after another slow Cardinals' start – stepped in front of Chad Johnson and raced 54 yards for another score.
The Bengals (3-7) moved the ball a bit on their final three drives, but on the first two, the Cards held on fourth-down pass attempts. On the final drive, with 49 seconds left and the Bengals at the Cardinals 46, Rolle jumped in front of Antonio Chatman and eventually raced 71 yards for yet another touchdown.
The score would have set an NFL record with three interception returns for touchdowns in a game. But Smith was flagged for a personal foul for a crushing block on Palmer – who seemed to be in the play trying to stop Rolle.
"That would have been something," Whisenhunt said with a smile. "But we'll take the win."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 11/18/07