CINCINNATI — Mike Nugent's worst moment of the season came in overtime.
The Bengals kicker missed a 36-yard field goal on the final play against Carolina on Oct. 12, forcing Cincinnati to settle for a 37-37 tie that will have major ramifications on the playoffs. He's been perfect since then, making all eight of his attempts.
"I'm trying to learn as much as possible from that one because if you don't learn from it, you might be one of those guys who it kind of defines your career," Nugent said.
The Bengals (7-3-1) stuck with him the whole way. They didn't bother to look for another kicker, showing faith that Nugent would recover from that costly miss. He made a 49-yarder in Houston on Sunday that clinched a 22-13 victory and kept Cincinnati in first place in the AFC North.
Coach Marvin Lewis didn't hesitate to let Nugent try for the long field goal with 1:55 left.
"He hit a big kick in the game, and he makes a play and puts us up two scores," Lewis said. "Obviously, taking a whack at the field goal at that point, I've got to have confidence Mike would make the kick, because I certainly don't want to give them the ball at the 40-yard line."
Nugent had to get past that one bad kick at Paul Brown field that left the fans booing and calling for kicker tryouts. Nugent called it perhaps the worst kick of his 10-year career — his plant foot landed too close to the ball, and he pushed it right.
He'd already made kicks from 44, 38 and 42 yards in the game. He felt good as he lined up in overtime with a chance to win it.
"That's why it's probably the most confusing kick of my career," Nugent said. "I wasn't nervous. It was more excitement. It was like, 'Nice, I'm 3 for 3 going in, let's get out of here with a win.' That's why it was confusing to me because it wasn't like I was, 'Oh gosh, I hope this goes in.'"
Nugent got calls and texts from some retired kickers after the game providing encouragement. They shared stories about their worst misses and how they overcame them.
"It's great to hear from guys like that and hear stories that they've had," Nugent said. "Guys are great. They always say kickers have kind of a fraternity."
It's not just Nugent who's doing well these days. The Bengals rank among the league leaders in most of the various special teams categories.
Heading into a game next Sunday at Tampa Bay (2-9), the Bengals rank second in the NFL in kickoff returns. Kevin Huber ranks second in the league in punting with a net average of 44.4 yards. Adam "Pacman" Jones ranks fourth in punt returns with a 13.1-yard average and first in kickoff returns with a 31.8-yard average.
The Bengals have been good and pinning opponents and getting good field position during games.
"Imagine a quarterback having to go 87 yards instead of 77," Nugent said. "It doesn't sound like a big difference, but it's so huge. I think we had a real big difference in starting field position (at Houston). I think it added up 10 series at 140 yards in difference. It's funny how the numbers just add up over time."
Notes: The Bengals put right tackle Andre Smith on injured reserve Tuesday with a torn left triceps, ending his season. Smith had missed two games with a sprained ankle before returning against Houston and hurting his arm. Marshall Newhouse started the two games when he was out. ... Cincinnati signed free agent offensive tackle Jamon Meredith, a sixth-year veteran who was Green Bay's fifth-round pick in 2009. He has started 24 games. He was with the Colts for the first nine games this, playing in four, before he was waived. The Packers re-signed him and waived him a week later. ... Linebacker Terrell Manning was signed off the practice squad by the Giants.