Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 6, 2012

AARON SNYDER: Lewis' bite timed right as Bengals take flight

Aaron Snyder
The Independent

ASHLAND — Marvin Lewis has been like a spider to Bengals fans. Just as the angst-ridden thoughts of being bitten or crawled upon creepily overwhelm you into panic mode, he reminds you that he preys on pesty insects and prevents them from invading your home.

While the losing poison of Bengals past penetrated Cincinnati during Lewis’ tenure — 4-11-1 in 2008; 4-12 in ’09 — the 10th-year coach has also been able to supply the antidote several times in the form of three playoff appearances (2005, ’09, ’11).

Cincinnati is finally regaining the respect it had around the NFL when Sam Wyche was at the helm.

Sitting at 3-4 and teetering on the side of another impending dropoff to doom, Lewis decided to sink his teeth into the core of this club — the leader of the offense and the leader of the defense — back in October, around Halloween.

That decision, in particular, should thrust Lewis into Coach of the Year discussions heading into the fourth quarter of the season, in my opinion.

It’s been five weeks since the coach called out quarterback Andy Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

In that span, the team is 4-1. They’ve won four straight and are sitting at 7-5, right in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.

The offense has been efficient around Dalton, also with the help of a solidifying running game led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis — the former Patriot has racked up three consecutive 100-yard games on the ground.

With Maualuga at the center, the defense has allowed two offensive touchdowns over the past four games.

Before a Week 12 34-10 romp of the Raiders, Lewis rewarded Dalton and Maualuga with C’s stitched onto their jerseys. It marked the first time that the coach had named permanent captains since the 2010 season.

Statistics during the streak:

‰Offense: 80 of 128 (62.5 percent) for 850 yards passing with 10 TDs and two interceptions; 132 attempts for 614 yards rushing with four TDs.

‰Defense: 207.3 passing yards allowed per game; 96.8 rushing yards relented per game; 10.5 points given up per game.

Another impressive note about the defense: Those two aforementioned TDs given up by the defense in these four games were a late fourth-quarter TD by the Giants and a late third-quarter score by Oakland. No Cincinnati opponent has found the end zone in the first half since Denver in Week 9.

The defensive line has been tremendous. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his two-sack, two-forced fumble performance in San Diego.

The Cowboys will try to test that pass defense with the combination of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Finding No. 2

No one in the NFL can live comfortably, and the Bengals surely can’t breathe easy even amid a fantastic four-game string.

Cincinnati’s main offensive concern currently lies in the passing game. While Dalton is putting to rest all notions of a sophomore slump, the Bengals are in search of a stable No. 2 receiver to go with out-of-this-world wideout A.J. Green.

Mohamed Sanu, a talented Rutgers product, was a rookie on the rise until a broken foot sidelined him for the season last week.

That means Dalton will target Andrew Hawkins, Brandon Tate and Marvin Jones with more frequency. Ryan Whalen and Armon Binns will likely see some action as well.

Hawkins is probably the best No. 2 option. He has battled a knee injury, but the 5-foot-7, 180-pound quick receiver has amassed 39 catches.

7-5, more than alive

It’s difficult to imagine a team losing to the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns in back-to-back weeks only to rebound and go on a Super Bowl run.

However, at 7-5, the Bengals are hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 2011 New York Giants or 2005 Steelers or 2001 Patriots, all of which had records of 7-5 or worse through 12 weeks of the season.

Then again, baby steps are probably the best way to approach it at this point. The Bengals are zoned in on the 6-6 Cowboys at the moment.

Catching Colts, Steelers

The Bengals are like a group of kids on a sidewalk peeking through the big window of a pet shop, fixated upon a vivacious puppy frolicking about inside.

Just how much is that doggie in the window?

Well, it could cost four more wins.

Six teams get in the playoffs, and the Bengals are right now No. 7 in the AFC.

The Ravens are inching closer to locking up the AFC North, even though it’s not a done deal by any means. They’re just two games ahead of the Steelers and Bengals.

Nonetheless, one of the two wild card spots are essentially what the Bengals are gunning for.

To examine Who Dey Nation’s chance at a second straight playoff appearance — it’d be the first such occurrence since 1981-82 — one must first take a gander at those in the driver’s seat.

The Colts (8-4) are nestling deeper and deeper into that No. 5 position. Their remaining games: Dec. 9 vs. Titans (4-8); Dec. 16 at Texans (11-1); Dec. 23 at Chiefs (2-10); Dec. 30 vs. Texans (11-1).

The Steelers (7-5) control their own destiny. A 4-0 finish and they’re in. Their last four contests: Dec. 9 vs. Chargers (4-8); Dec. 16 at Cowboys (6-6); Dec. 23 vs. Bengals (7-5); Dec. 30 vs. Browns (4-8).

The Bengals also control their own destiny. Who knows? It may just come down to those final two weeks, with a Week 16 showdown at Pittsburgh and a Week 17 home date with Baltimore. Before that: Dec. 9 vs. Cowboys (6-6); Dec. 13 at Eagles (3-9).

Considering the 3-5 record staring directly back at them just last month, the Bengals are elated to be in this position.

It all started with the decision by Lewis to go public with a challenge. As it turned out, the captains righted the ship.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.