Strong play from Andy Dalton and clutch kicking by Mike Nugent are big reasons why the Cincinnati Bengals are atop the AFC North.
Geno Smith and Nick Folk have played similar roles in the New York Jets’ surprising success.
Becoming accustomed to dramatic endings, the Bengals seek a fourth consecutive victory Sunday when they face a Jets team coming off its biggest win of the season.
Cincinnati (5-2) has won three straight to build a two-game division lead on Baltimore and Cleveland, heading into the midway point of the season.
Dalton has engineered that surge by completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 709 yards with six touchdowns, one interception and a 119.7 passer rating over the last two games. Nugent has capped both those contests with game-winning field goals.
The veteran kicker came through with a 54-yarder as time expired in last week’s 27-24 win at Detroit after connecting from 43 in overtime of a victory by the same score at Buffalo on Oct. 13.
“These last couple have come down to the end and we’re finding ways to win the game,” Dalton said. “For us, it’s big. We’re 5-2 now and it sets us up nice for where we want to go.”
The Jets (4-3) certainly like where Smith is headed after beating AFC East-leading New England 30-27 on Folk’s 42-yard field goal in overtime last Sunday. The rookie completed 17 of 33 for 233 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while rushing six times for 32 yards and another score.
It’s Smith’s coolness late in games that has New York gaining confidence. He’s the only quarterback since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger with four winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first seven games. All four of the Jets’ wins have come that way, thanks in large part to Smith while Folk has hit the decisive field goal in three of them.
“Just keep making strides,” coach Rex Ryan said when asked what he’d like to see from Smith moving forward. “I think you see it on the practice field. I think he’s comfortable with our system.
“I think it’s now become his system.”
Despite Smith’s heroics, he’s struggling to find consistency as the Jets have alternated wins and losses heading into Week 8. He’s completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1,019 yards with seven TDs, four interceptions and a 93.7 QB rating in the wins, while hitting on just 55.3 percent of his attempts for 704 yards with one score, seven picks and a 51.6 rating in defeats.
“I definitely want to continue to play consistently, and that’s something I have been working extremely hard at,” Smith said. “I’ve been beating myself over it because I know with that consistency at the quarterback (position), it usually leads to success with the team.
“That’s something I’m trying to do, something I pride myself in, being a consistent decision-maker.”
Quick decisions will be important against the Bengals defense, which is looking to rebound after allowing a season-high 357 yards passing to the Lions’ Matthew Stafford.
Cincinnati, though, will be without top cornerback Leon Hall, who is out for the season after tearing his right Achilles tendon in Week 7. He suffered the same injury to his left leg in 2011.
“I feel bad for him,” said Dre Kirkpatrick, who should see his playing time increase. “It’s the second time it’s happened to him and it’s the opposite leg. I just feel bad for him.”
Dalton figures to have his hands full with New York’s defense, ranked fourth overall in the NFL, third with 24 sacks and second against the run at 77.7 yards per game. It’s yet to allow a 100-yard rusher, and the Bengals haven’t had one since BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 106 in a win at Philadelphia in Week 15 of last season.
Cincinnati’s strength, though, is with Dalton through the air and he has an array of targets, as four players have caught TD passes in the last two games. Marvin Jones has two, and rookies Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard one each, giving the Bengals options other than All-Pro receiver A.J. Green.
Green had an 82-yard scoring reception against the Lions, finishing with 155 yards on six catches.
He ranks among the league leaders with 43 receptions and 619 yards.
Still, it could be Nugent’s foot that decides the game, and he’s ready to come through in his first meeting with the team that drafted him in the second round in 2005.
“I do it in the offseason when I’m just out by myself,” said Nugent, who spent four seasons with the Jets. “If you can try to put as much pressure on yourself as you can when you’re practicing, put yourself in the situation, maybe that adds up and makes it easier when it actually happens.”
The Jets have won nine of the past 10 meetings with the Bengals, including a wild-card victory after the 2009 season.