Bengals are turning their season around

CINCINNATI — Andrew Whitworth was at the bottom of a large pile of very large people, and he could feel punches hitting his neck, back and shoulders.

The Bengals offensive tackle was there because Raiders defensive tackle Lamarr Houston had hit Andy Dalton late, and Whitworth took exception. Words were exchanged, then Houston lunged at Whitworth, then all sorts of heck broke loose.

The skirmish resulted in three ejections, but it was a minor bump in a dominating victory over the Raiders that made Carson Palmer’s return to Cincinnati very much a side note. In a few ways, Whitworth throwing himself into the fray and the Bengals popping a 48-yard pass on the very next play summed up what’s gone around here of late.

The Bengals have punched back. Dalton is throwing darts. And a season that not long ago was dangerously close to imploding has turned for the better.

The Bengals blew past the Raiders Sunday, 34-10, scoring their third straight victory. All have come in dominant fashion and without the Bengals committing a turnover, and the end result is the Bengals are back to 6-5 and in the thick of the race for the AFC’s two wild-card spots.

“We’re starting to find the way we like to play and that style, that attitude is key and we’ve got to continue to do it,” Whitworth said. “This isn’t enough. We feel like the (losing) streak we had in the middle of the season is purely and solely because we felt too good about ourselves and relaxed. I don’t think this team is like that right now. We’re ticked off and we have a chip on our shoulder and we’re out to prove who we are and what we set out this season to be.

“We’ll keep putting the throttle down, and practices will be better and more heated and we’ll have more successful for it.”

The Bengals were 3-5 after a four-game losing streak that spanned from the end of September to the second weekend of November, presumed dead not at all by record in a jumbled AFC but by poor play. Dalton was throwing a touchdown pass every game to A.J. Green but also throwing at least a couple passes to the other team. The running game was virtually non-existent, and the defense was giving up big plays.

One win over the defending Super Bowl champions and two over headed-nowhere AFC West teams later, and the Bengals have a pulse. They’ve shown that they have plenty of, well, fight, too, and carry a bunch of momentum into next week’s game at San Diego.

It’s the second three-game win streak of the season for the Bengals. It’s the more important one, too, because that losing streak left little margin for error and gave the Bengals a sense of urgency. It was either clean things up and start playing to this team’s potential, or squander an opportunity to post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1981-82, before most of the current players were born.

“I really think when we were able to look at us during the bye week, our team came out of that with a focus of what we need to do,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’ve wasted some opportunities. You want to play your best football in December. We weren’t very good in October. We’ve been a little better in November and we’re getting close to December. We’ve got to keep going.”

The Bengals were up 14-0 just 12 minutes into Sunday’s game with the Raiders, and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis sparked that. Green-Ellis has now posted back-to-back 100-yard games and scored a touchdown in each of the last two weeks.

The Bengals had 221 yards rushing Sunday, which feels like about what they had in the entire month of October. The running game and the emergence of rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu have added dimensions to the offense, Dalton has been comfortable and efficient and a gifted yet underrated defensive line spent much of Sunday’s game smacking Palmer and sacked him four times.

It was 24-0 at halftime and 24-10 early in the fourth quarter when Houston hit Dalton after the whistle had been blown. Once Houston and Whitworth mixed it up, Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly left the bench to join the fray and he, too, was ejected.

“They were probably looking for a fight,” Whitworth said. “They weren’t doing much on the field.”

The Bengals know that December will be a proving ground, that three of the five remaining games are on the road and the last two are the real measuring sticks for a young team that will only truly earn respect when it can beat the Steelers (on the road, Dec. 23) and the Ravens (Dec. 30). About the only negative Sunday is that superfreak wide receiver Green’s streak of nine consecutive games with a touchdown catch came to an end.

Green still had 111 receiving yards on just three catches. Sanu, a healthy scratch just five games ago, had his first multiple-touchdown game. The competition gets stiffer from here, but the Bengals have the look and a growing confidence.

“I’ve got to keep pressing and make sure that it is different this time,” Lewis said. “We can’t have any backslides. We know a backslide makes it hard for us. Right now we can control our own destiny, per se. If we backslide, it’s up to other people.”

December is around the corner, and the Bengals — flawed and scarred and full of fight — can play their way into January if they keep this up.