Bengals take winning streak into bye
Midway through October, the Cincinnati Bengals already have matched their win total from last season. They've won three in a row - their best such streak since 2009 - and they're headed into the bye week feeling they can be a contender.
No one expected this from such a young team.
A 27-17 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday took the Bengals to a place that no one expected. They've rallied to win games in front of small crowds that reflect the lack of interest in a team with so much recent baggage.
''We're going to get better,'' offensive guard Bobbie Williams said. ''So it doesn't matter what people think because we know what we can do.''
So far, they've proved they can win games with a combination of steady defense and just enough big plays out of a very young offense.
The defense was ranked No. 1 in yards allowed for two consecutive weeks, slipping to No. 3 after the game against the Colts. The Bengals ranked seventh overall in points allowed and haven't given up more than 24 in any game.
The offense has been getting a little better each week with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie receiver A.J. Green leading the way. Green leads the team with 29 catches for 453 yards and four touchdowns. Dalton has thrown seven touchdowns and five interceptions, improving his passer rating to 84.3, which is roughly the league average.
''We're getting better every week, and that's what we have to do,'' Dalton said. ''We have to keep improving and continue fixing the little things. We'll see what happens from there.''
The overriding questions coming out of their bye week will be: Can they keep this up as the schedule gets tougher? And can they get back to filling their stadium?
The Bengals got a break with the way their schedule set up. Only one of the teams they play in the first half are coming off a winning season - the Colts, who are 0-6 without quarterback Peyton Manning. They've played only one AFC North opponent, beating Cleveland with a quick-snap touchdown in the season opener.
The other three wins came against Buffalo (4-2) and Carolina (1-5). They've lost to Denver (1-4) and San Francisco (5-1). Coming out of the bye, they play at Seattle (2-3).
''This is really not unexpected,'' safety Chris Crocker said. ''We thought we could get a really good start on the season, and we were going to play well if we played together as a team. That's what we've done.''
In November, they start a six-game stretch that gives them a better idea of where they stand. They play at Tennessee, home against Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, home against Cleveland, at Pittsburgh and home against Houston.
After practice on Monday, second-string quarterback Bruce Gradkowski tweeted: ''Nice to be 4-2 time to take a step back relax and get ready for the stretch push for a division title!''
The upcoming home game against Pittsburgh represents their first chance to sell out at Paul Brown Stadium this season, with thousands of Steelers fans making the five-hour drive. They haven't come close to filling their 65,500-seat stadium, drawing crowds of 43,363, 41,142 and 52,068 for the three home games so far.
The Bengals failed to sell out their last four games last season, when they finished 4-12 and went into a turbulent offseason that further alienated fans. Lewis decided to return even though owner Mike Brown offered no significant changes in how the front office operates. Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer then said he would rather retire than play another season with Cincinnati, which has only two winning records in the last 20 years.
Lewis had a surprising response when asked Monday about fans staying away.
''I can't change people's minds about things,'' Lewis said. ''You know what I mean? Someone has done a very good job of driving them away from here. And he's been very wrong.''
Lewis declined to say who was driving fans away. Later, he said in a statement: ''What will bring our fans back is winning, and I shouldn't be thinking out loud like that.''
Notes: MLB Rey Maualuga had a pink cast on his left foot Monday. He walked through the locker room on two metal crutches and declined to talk to reporters. Lewis said Maualuga sprained his left ankle during practice on Thursday. He was inactive against the Colts. The cast is an indication he will miss more than the one game. ... CB Adam ''Pacman'' Jones said he's been cleared medically to rejoin the team. Jones has been on an injury list as he recovers from neck surgery.