CINCINNATI — With the help of replay that went their way, the Bengals held on for a win.
Then they glanced at the rest of the AFC North results and realized what had happened.
The defending division champions are once again in control.
A 14-13 win in Tampa on Sunday left the Bengals (8-3-1) with more than a game lead over the rest of the division. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland all lost, falling to 7-5.
And the schedule gives Cincinnati a chance to finish it off. The Bengals play two against the Steelers and a game in Cleveland during December.
Safety George Iloka described it as a sense of relief when the Bengals realized that the division race has finally broken open — and broken Cincinnati's way. The Bengals host the Steelers on Sunday with a chance to all but eliminate the Steelers from the division title race.
"We've just got a little more breathing room," Iloka said on Monday. "It always helps when we win a game and other teams lose. Guys were definitely happy about that."
The NFL's toughest division finally has a clear-cut leader.
All three teams were three games over .500 — an NFL first — heading into the weekend. The Bengals played one of their poorest games and got the help of a replay overturn in the closing seconds. A review showed that Tampa Bay had 12 players on the field for a pass completion that had moved the Buccaneers well into field-goal range.
That one replay changed everything in the division.
Cincinnati is in solid shape to reach the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. And the Bengals are heading into December on a hot streak.
The win at Tampa Bay marked the third straight week the Bengals had won on the road, which is a franchise first. The defense has finally straightened out, which is the most encouraging sign.
And Cincinnati takes a lot of confidence and what amounts to a 1½-game lead into the final stretch of the season.
"It's winning time," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said on Monday. "This is when you grow. This is when the real players show up, because this is an opportunity to really make something special happen.
"People remember what you do in December. That's the old term: December, January football is where it's at."
January has been Cincinnati's worst month. The Bengals have lost opening-round playoff games each of the past three seasons — two in Houston, last year at home to San Diego — and haven't gotten a postseason victory since the 1990 season.
The whole theme of this season was to get to the playoffs again, and win this time. A 24-3 loss to Cleveland at Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 6 in a Thursday night game knocked them out of first place, but they've regained control with those three straight road wins.
The biggest questions in December involve Andy Dalton, who was sick in Tampa and threw three first-half interceptions before helping the Bengals pull it out. Dalton has been erratic all season — he had a passer rating of only 2.0 in the loss to Cleveland — and will be under the biggest scrutiny heading down the stretch.
Coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday that he never considered benching Dalton on Sunday even though he was sick and played so poorly in the first half — 7 of 11 for 62 yards with three interceptions and a passer rating of 39.
In the second half, Dalton went 12 of 16 for 114 yards with a touchdown and a passer rating of 115.1.
"I thought he did a great job coming back in the second half after having a very, very poor first half," Lewis said. "He missed throws, he missed things that he's supposed to do within the offense, and he heard about it at halftime. I thought he responded to it.
"He came back and played a great second half."
Notes: The Bengals placed LB Jayson DiManche on the injured reserve list with a broken right forearm suffered on Sunday. They'll look at their options before filling his roster spot. ... The right tackle job is open to competition. Marshall Newhouse and Clint Boling shared time there Sunday. Starter Andre Smith is out for the rest of the season with a torn left triceps.
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