After a hot start, the Cincinnati Bengals’ season has not come off the rails. It has definitely hit a snag.
The Indianapolis Colts are trending in the opposite direction.
The Colts seek their longest winning streak of the Andrew Luck era as they host the Bengals on Sunday in a matchup of AFC division leaders.
Cincinnati (3-1-1) was the conference’s only unbeaten team following its Week 4 bye, but then was embarrassed in a 43-17 loss to New England and took part in the first tie of the NFL season last Sunday – 37-37 with Carolina.
Mike Nugent rushed his 36-yard field goal try as overtime ended against the Panthers, pushing wide right what he called "the worst ball I’ve ever hit in my career."
Spirits were higher a few weeks ago in Cincinnati, which still leads the AFC North. Coach Marvin Lewis refuses to bother himself with those memories.
"I can’t look behind. It does no good looking back," Lewis said. "There’s too much ahead to look back all the time, and there’s too much change in the future to look back. You’re wasting your time look backwards."
Indianapolis (4-2) certainly isn’t doing so.
Since opening the season with consecutive losses, the Colts have won four straight to move atop the AFC South. They haven’t had a longer win streak since opening 14-0 in 2009, Peyton Manning’s second-to-last season under center.
Luck is putting up Peyton-like numbers in his third season, leading the NFL with 1,987 yards passing and 17 touchdowns – six shy of his career high. He threw for 370 yards and three TDs last Thursday as Indianapolis held off Houston 33-28.
Equally impressive has been the emergence of T.Y. Hilton, who ranks fourth in the NFL with 604 receiving yards and tied for fifth with 40 receptions. The third-year wideout already has 12 100-yard games in his career, and his 223-yard performance last Thursday was the second-highest in Colts history.
"He’s playing at a high level," coach Chuck Pagano told the Colts’ official website. "He’s always played at a high level. I think from his rookie season, midway through his rookie season until now, he’s been doing the same things.
"He’s a playmaker, he’s a game-wrecker."
A.J. Green serves the same role for Cincinnati, averaging 104.7 yards in the three full games he’s played, but the star receiver sat out last week with an injured big toe and is likely to miss his second straight game after being unable to practice Friday.
The Bengals got another scare last week when Giovanni Bernard left with a shoulder injury, but he returned to finish with a career-high 137 rushing yards on 18 carries. That included an 89-yard touchdown run – second-longest in team history – and he ranks fifth in the NFL with 112.4 scrimmage yards per game.
Bernard had 138 total yards in last season’s 42-28 victory over the Colts. Sunday will mark the teams’ fourth meeting in five years.
"We know them so well," Pagano said. "It seems like we play them twice a year, every year. Really good football team. Well coached, a lot of athletes. They’ve built a big, long athletic roster on both sides of the football. They have playmakers all over the place."
Defensively, though, the Bengals have been struggling. They’ve allowed an average of 172.0 rushing yards in their last three games and 288.0 passing in the past two while forcing only one turnover and getting one sack.
"We really have to go back and just do our jobs on defense," Lewis said. "We’re trying to do too much, and guys need to relax and do their thing, and keep doing your job consistently play after play after play."
The Cincinnati defense let Luck throw for 326 yards and four TDs last year. Andy Dalton had 275 yards passing with three scores, but one was to Green and one was to Marvin Jones, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday.
Mohamed Sanu has stepped into the second receiver role with Jones on the shelf and was particularly good last week with Green out, hauling in 10 receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown.
The Bengals have won the past two meetings, but both were in Cincinnati, where they had won 11 straight games before last week’s tie.
The Colts have won all six matchups in Indianapolis since 1997, but those all came with Manning playing and before Dalton came along.