CINCINNATI — There has never been a division race in the NFL like the one the league is witnessing this season with the AFC North. This is the first time in NFL history that a division has all of its teams at least three games over .500 at any point in a season let alone with five games left to play.
For all of their ups and downs, their idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, the Bengals are the team at the top of the standings in control of its own fate. The Browns, Ravens and Steelers, all 7-4, are just one-half game behind the 7-3-1 Bengals so by no means are the Bengals sitting comfortably. That discomfort is what is currently driving them.
The Bengals were embarrassed at home by Cleveland, 24-3, on a nationally televised Thursday night game three weeks ago. Since then they’ve gone on the road and beaten New Orleans and Houston in convincing fashion, trailing for just five minutes and 39 seconds in the process. They’ve produced two of their best all-around team performances in the last two games. Not perfect performances, mind you, but much more in line with how they will need to play down the stretch if they are going to maintain their slim division advantage.
Head coach Marvin Lewis told his players before they faced the Saints that they had no more mulligans.
"Marvin said it prior to (New Orleans), whatever happened prior in the year doesn’t mean anything," said safety George Iloka. "We had six games left — at the time — and whatever we do from here on out will determine where we’re at at the end of the year. We can’t just have any redos. We can’t afford to have games where we left it on the field and we should have won that. There’s no more of that. Every game is proving to be important. Especially in this division."
The Bengals have responded positively to Lewis’ message as they prepare for their third straight road game this Sunday at Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are just 2-9 but in the ‘Bizarro World’ that is the NFC South they are just two games out of first place. Regardless of Tampa Bay’s record, the Bengals have to worry about themselves.
"It just shows that every week’s important, especially in our division. It’s crazy how good everybody’s playing this year," said quarterback Andy Dalton. "That’s why you’ve got to be at your best every week because you can’t slip up once because everybody’s playing so well and finding ways to win games. You’ve really got to take it one week at a time and do whatever you can to win."
The Bengals’ final four games of the season will be as difficult as any team in the league; they host Pittsburgh and Denver (8-3), the leader in the AFC West, with a return trip to Cleveland in between on Dec. 14. They close out the regular season in Pittsburgh on Dec. 28.
"There’s got to be an urgency of where we are in the point in the year (which) is the most important part," said Lewis. "They’ve put themselves in position to control what we can do and that’s what they’ve been training for since April, to have these opportunities. Every opportunity provides for a bigger one. We just have to keep forging forward and grinding on."
Iloka said you could call the loss to the Browns a wakeup call or an embarrassment. Either way it had the same effect on the Bengals.
"Not because it was Cleveland but just because more so of how we came out flat and the amount of points we lost by," said Iloka. "Then at that point they were leading the division so it’s like "wakeup guys, we could be out of all the things we want to accomplish this year if we don’t get our act together." We’ve put two together good (games) so far but the way the division is it doesn’t mean nothing. We’ve got to keep stacking wins on top of wins so that we’re in a good position by the end of the year."