CINCINNATI — A Bengals team that lost its first three games is getting rewarded with an extra day off this week.
That’s how quickly things have changed.
Facing elimination from the AFC North only two weeks ago, the Bengals are back in the thick of the race — only one game out of first place — heading into their bye. A 20-16 victory over Buffalo on Sunday gave Cincinnati (2-3) a reprieve.
“It’s been good, and now we have to keep going,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
Rarely have the Bengals gone through such an about-face in their 50-season history. They fired their offensive coordinator after failing to score a touchdown in their first two games.
Then they fell to 0-3 with an overtime loss in Green Bay. No Bengals team has reached the playoffs after such a bad start. No NFL team has done it since the 1998 Bills.
Yet here they are, right behind Pittsburgh (3-2) and Baltimore (3-2), with two games remaining against the Steelers and one with the Ravens.
“We were never dead,” linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. “You just have to have faith.”
Though back in it, they’ve left themselves with no margin for error. Following their bye, they play at Pittsburgh, which has won four straight and seven of the past eight between the Ohio River rivals.
Following a home game against Indianapolis, they play at Jacksonville, at Tennessee and at Denver in consecutive weeks.
The two straight wins — and the rest of the division’s struggles — have provided a second chance. They were well aware that things were falling their way during the game Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Video from the Steelers’ loss was shown on the board during timeouts, drawing loud cheers from the crowd of 52,367.
There was more celebration when the Bengals finished off their fourth-quarter comeback.
“The season itself wasn’t won or lost,” safety George Iloka said. “We won some momentum, if you want to say that.”
And an extra day off. Lewis made a deal with players last week: They beat the Bills, they get another free day during their bye week. He held up his end of the bargain, leaving them free after meetings on Tuesday.
The biggest transformation has been on offense. After firing Ken Zampese and elevating Bill Lazor to coordinator, the Bengals have gotten comfortable again.
Andy Dalton drew a lot of fans criticism after his five turnovers during a 20-0 season-opening loss to the Ravens. He’s back in form, throwing five touchdown passes in the past two games. Since the Bengals changed coordinators, Dalton’s passer rating is 116.2 and he’s getting cheered.
“I guess that’s why no one is talking about it, because this is what you expect,” Lazor said Monday. “Andy is playing very decisively.”
Lewis said cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam “Pacman” Jones aren’t expected to be sidelined for a significant time. Kirkpatrick hurt his right shoulder, and Jones hurt his lower back during the first half against Buffalo and didn’t return. Lewis said Jones’ injury is more than a muscle strain but won’t require any procedure. … Receiver Tyler Boyd hurt his right knee in the first quarter and didn’t return. Lewis indicated it wasn’t a long-term injury.
ROSS STILL NOT CLOSE
First-round pick John Ross sat out for the fourth time in five games with an injured left knee, hurt in the final preseason game. Ross worked out on a limited basis last week. The receiver also missed time during the summer because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.
“He needs a lot of time (to catch up), a lot of practice,” Lewis said.