Bengals solid at bye week, could emerge better

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CINCINNATI (AP) — The previous time the Bengals opened a season 3-0 was 2006. They were a young team coming off a first-round playoff loss.

They got off to a very impressive start, determined to go deeper into the postseason this time around.

And then, they crashed.

Those '06 Bengals finished 8-8, one of the great disappointments in coach Marvin Lewis' 12 seasons. What's to think the same thing won't happen this time around, too?

"It's a different group," Lewis said. "That ('06) group had made the playoffs for the first time in a long time the year before — first time in their careers ever making the playoffs.

"This is a different football team. This team knows the task at hand. When we got started, we knew where we needed to go each and every week."

So far, they've done everything they wanted.

The Bengals enter their bye weekend as one of only three undefeated teams in the league, and the only one in the AFC.

Their defense is again one of the league's best at shutting down quarterbacks. The special teams are solid all around. And the offense has new spunk under first-year coordinator Hue Jackson.

Receiver Mohamed Sanu has thrown two passes. Andy Dalton has caught a touchdown pass.

Pretty much sums it up.

A team that has reached the playoffs three consecutive years — the first two as a wild card, last year as AFC North champions — has emerged as one of the NFL's most complete teams and could be even better coming out of the bye.

"We're playing with a lot of confidence," Dalton said. "It's not just one side of the ball. It's every phase of the game. It makes it fun."

Even though the defense has changed coordinators — Paul Guenther was promoted after Mike Zimmer left for Minnesota — a unit that finished third in the league last year has kept up the pace. Quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Jake Locker have completed only 54 percent of their passes for 761 yards with two touchdowns, six interceptions and seven sacks.

Their combined passer rating: 56.9.

"When this team is healthy and we've got everyone back, I (expect) nothing but great things from here on out," linebacker Rey Maualuga said.

The Bengals have stayed unbeaten despite a lot of injuries. Tight end Tyler Eifert will miss the first half of the season with an injured elbow. Tight end Alex Smith is out for the season with a biceps injury. Right guard Kevin Zeitler is out indefinitely with an injured calf.

Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict missed the previous game with his second concussion of the season. Receiver Marvin Jones has missed the first three games with a broken foot, but is expected back after the bye.

The biggest change from last season has been in the offense. Dalton has thrown only one interception and has yet to be sacked. The running game is more diversified with Giovani Bernard moving into the starter's role and rookie Jeremy Hill sharing time.

And Jackson has brought more creativity to things, allowing Sanu to throw the ball and Dalton to catch it.

"What I've been watching is great," Jones said. "What I've been watching is an offense that's explosive, and obviously we're taking care of the ball. And we're just making plays.

"We have people out there that have a lot of ability and add different attributes to the game, and it's just good to see."

Of course, the next 13 games are a lead-in to what will ultimately decide whether the season is a success. The Bengals have lost in the opening round of the playoffs each of the past three seasons. Lewis is 0-5 in the playoffs.

The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, which ties for the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. What happens then will define everything.

"Since I've been here, we've played pretty well during the season," third-year safety George Iloka said. "I'll bet your friends all say: 'The same old Cincinnati. They do good in the regular season ...'

"We're doing everything so far that we're supposed to do."



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