Andy Dalton and the Bengals are 2-0 (USA Today Sports)
Andy Dalton and the Bengals are 2-0 (USA Today Sports)

Early on it was the explosive first half from A.J. Green. Then it was the tough running of Joe Mixon, who twice left the game with a knee injury. And all throughout, the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense came up with big plays in a 34-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night.

The Bengals became the NFL’s first 2-0 team this season. A year ago almost to the day, they lost to the Houston Texans, falling to 0-2, and fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese the following day after scoring nine points in two games.

Now they’ve opened the season with back-to-back 34-point games, and Zampese's replacement, Bill Lazor, looks dialed in with his play calling now in his second year running the offense. But the Bengals' defense also deserves some of the credit for that. It harassed Joe Flacco early and often and came up with just enough big plays late to hang on.

The Bengals looked to be in full control, up 21-0 and later 28-7 in the second quarter. Green’s three first-half TD catches were a career-high for him, even though he was fairly quiet after catching his third score less than 17 minutes into the game. Mixon gutted through a painful knee injury to total 84 yards rushing in the game, including a 21-yarder late that helped keep the Ravens at arm’s distance.

Andy Dalton was hot in the first half with four TD passes, the other one going to Tyler Boyd. Although Dalton cooled off a bit after halftime, he played about as clean a game Thursday as he has against a good team — in primetime, no less — in some time. He finished the game 24-of-42 passing for 265 yards.

But the Ravens made it interesting after looking completely washed early. Following a quick three-and-out right before half, the Ravens took over again — after failing on fourth down the possession earlier — and scored to make it a two-TD game. The Ravens cut the Bengals’ lead to 28-23 with just under 10 minutes remaining, and even with the missed two-point try, all the momentum was in Baltimore’s favor.

The Bengals stanched the bleeding by tacking on two fourth-quarter field goals. Flacco was strip-sacked by Bengals safety Shawn Williams (who earlier had an interception) in the final minutes, and Cincinnati was able to close it out for the team’s first 2-0 start since 2015, when they started out the season 8-0.

The Bengals sacked Flacco six times and dominated both lines of scrimmage. Geno Atkins had two sacks and was close to having two more. Carlos Dunlap hit Flacco on Williams’ interception. Rookie Sam Hubbard had a sack and a tackle for loss to help set the early tone for the Bengals.

The Ravens put themselves in a big hole early and showed some guts by making it a game. Alex Collins had only 13 touches but made the most of them with some nifty tackle-shaking moves en route to 90 yards from scrimmage, including a career-best 55 receiving. John Brown hauled in a gorgeous 21-yard TD throw from Flacco to cut the lead to five points.

But it wasn’t enough, as the Bengals finished things off. They’re now ahead of the pack in the division in the early going, with the Browns and Steelers having tied in Week 1. It’s a great start, and they temporarily ended their recent skein in primetime games over the past few seasons.

Is this team different than last season’s 7-9 club that never won more than two straight games — or scored more than 31 points? It appears so. But as we’ve seen in recent seasons, the Bengals’ success ultimately can’t be defined by what happens in Weeks 1 and 2. There’s also the matter of rookie center Billy Price, who left the game early with an injury that could be concerning.

It’s a long ride, but at least it’s off to a good start.