Playoff hopes alive for Bengals after struggling defense finds new life in Cleveland

CINCINNATI – Suddenly, the Cincinnati Bengals are back in the middle of the playoff chase, revived by one of the rarest of accomplishments.

The NFL’s worst defense produced a shutout.

The Bengals pulled off their first shutout in 17 years on Sunday, a 30-0 victory in Cleveland – the last team they blanked – that left them with newfound confidence heading into their biggest game of the season.

Cincinnati (6-5) plays at home Thursday night against Baltimore (9-2), which can snatch away the AFC North championship with a win.

“For the defense, with a lot of guys playing in positions they’re not used to playing, to get four turnovers and a big shutout is huge for us, for momentum and confidence, going into another big division game this week,” quarterback Carson Palmer said.

Holding an opponent’s offense to average numbers has been a noteworthy accomplishment for Cincinnati’s defense, which ranked last in the league in yards allowed heading into the game in Cleveland.

The Bengals gave up 42 points in the second half of a 49-41 loss to San Diego, then nearly 600 yards in a 31-16 win in New Orleans. In those two games, the defense seemed to be starting another late-season slide just as the offense finally found its stride.

Now, there’s hope.

“We didn’t do anything special,” linebacker Landon Johnson said. “We just played as a team.”

The defense hadn’t done that lately. With players switching positions and reserves taking on bigger roles because of injuries, the defense repeatedly gave up big plays and failed to get a turnover in three consecutive games.

Lately, the defense has started to look more like the unit that led the league in forcing turnovers last season. Cincinnati has gotten nine turnovers in the last two games, including four interceptions of Cleveland quarterback Charlie Frye.

The Bengals scored touchdowns on their first two possessions Sunday, and the defense had its way against one of the league’s sorriest offenses. Cleveland has scored the third-fewest points in the NFL.

“The big thing is our offense got on the board right away,” said safety Kevin Kaesviharn, who had two interceptions. “Once you get a team in the hole, they can’t run the plays that they were going to run, and you’re able to keep them there.”

By winning their last two games, the Bengals have given themselves an outside chance to win the AFC North for a second straight season, and a better chance to make the playoffs as a wild card.