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February 16, 2024

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Bengals take control of AFC wild card

CINCINNATI – By winning their last four games with a flourish, the Cincinnati Bengals have moved to the front of the pack of wild card contenders and distinguished themselves as a very dangerous team with the playoffs at hand.

No one saw this coming a month ago.

A 27-10 victory over Oakland extended Cincinnati’s winning streak and left the Bengals and the Jacksonville Jaguars in line for the two AFC wild card berths at 8-5. The offense is back in 2005 form, and the defense is setting club records every time out.

“We’re on the way up,” linebacker Brian Simmons said. “We don’t want to peak until Miami (the Super Bowl), if we’re fortunate to get there.”

The way they’re playing, no one should put it past them.

After losing five of six to fall to 4-5, the defending AFC North champions have gotten their act together. Carson Palmer is finally back in form from his reconstructive knee surgery, and a defense that was getting shredded at a record rate is now setting franchise marks for sturdiness.

Up next is a stretch of games, at Indianapolis on Monday night, at Denver, at home against Pittsburgh, that doesn’t seem as foreboding anymore.

“I know I’m a little ahead of myself, but once we get past Indy, I think we’re kind of home free,” receiver Chad Johnson said. “I don’t care what nobody says.”

His head coach says the next three games will provide an accurate measure of whether the Bengals are as good as they’ve looked.

The Colts (10-3) are in danger of losing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs following a 44-17 loss to Jacksonville. The Broncos (7-6) have lost four in a row and slipped behind Cincinnati in the playoff race. Both teams should play with desperation.

And the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers (6-7) can never be taken lightly, no matter what’s at stake.

“So there are three teams fighting for the same things we are,” coach Marvin Lewis said yesterday. “We know they’re going to be some great football games. If we want to be the team that we believe we are, we’ve got to go play and win football games.

“If we’re a playoff team, we have to prove it by beating playoff teams.”

Their four-game winning streak includes victories over two playoff contenders, New Orleans and Baltimore, and two foundering teams in Cleveland and Oakland. The Ravens (10-3) still lead the division by two games, so the Bengals are relegated to contemplating the wild card for now.

Not a bad thought, given how well they’re playing.

“It’s a fun week and a fun stretch,” Palmer said. “Possibly, it will be a fun month if we can take care of these games and get a first-round game in the playoffs. Hopefully we’re playing our best football these next three weeks.

“It’s just exciting. We’re on a little bit of a roll right now, especially the way our defense is playing.”

That has been the biggest change in the Bengals over the past month.

The defense gave up a club-record 42 points in the second half of a loss to San Diego that left Cincinnati down for the count at 4-5. Next, the defense allowed New Orleans to pile up an astonishing 595 yards but got three interceptions to pull out a win that sparked the turnaround.

Since then, the defense has pulled off its first shutout in 17 years (30-0 over Cleveland), followed by a 13-7 win over Baltimore and the 27-10 victory over Oakland. The 17 points in three games is the fewest allowed by any Cincinnati defense.

Indianapolis will provide the best test since the win over New Orleans. Cleveland and Oakland have two of the league’s worst offenses, and Baltimore has won games primarily with defense.

“When we play together like that and make big plays, you have momentum going into the next game,” defensive end Robert Geathers said. “If we can keep it rolling, we’ll be successful from here on out.”

Soon, they’ll see.

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