Created on Tuesday, 15 October 2013 Written by JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals are in an unfamiliar place six weeks into the season.
Check out the AFC North standings. There they are, right at the top. And all alone.
Cincinnati leads the division all by itself for the first time since the end of the 2009 season, when it won the division. Since then, the Bengals had made the playoffs twice, both times as a wild card.
One of their goals this season was to overtake Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the division title. At 4-2, they've got a one-game lead on the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens and a 2½-game lead on the Steelers. Cleveland is tied with Baltimore for second place.
And the Bengals feel they're just starting to find their stride.
"We're just scratching the surface," defensive lineman Domata Peko said on Monday. "I think we've got to have a complete game — offense, defense, special teams. I think once we start hitting on all cylinders, we can play with the best of them."
A 27-24 overtime victory in Buffalo on Sunday represented a solid start to their most challenging stretch of the schedule. It was the first of four road games in a five-game stretch. They play at Detroit (4-2) Sunday, host the Jets, then play at Miami and Baltimore.
If they can get through this stretch intact, they'll be playing for the division title down the stretch.
"If we continue going out there and playing hard, everything's possible for us," running back Giovani Bernard said Monday. "We knew going into the season that this team is very packed. We have playmakers across the board offensively and defensively."
The Bengals have won seven division titles during their 44 seasons. They've also reached the playoffs four other times as qualifiers. But they haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, going 0-4. That stretch of playoff futility ties for seventh-longest in NFL history.
They've gotten to the top with some very uneven performances. They beat Green Bay despite four turnovers. They allowed Buffalo to tie the game on a 40-yard touchdown pass with 68 seconds left in regulation before pulling it out.
They've had trouble putting teams away. On Sunday, Mike Nugent missed a 34-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter that would have made it 27-10. The defense then allowed the Bills to tie it.
"As far as the biggest improvement, it would be to close the games out," coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday. "That's going to be important. We had a couple of opportunities to close it out and didn't get it done."
One of the biggest questions on Sunday was whether the defense could come up with a second straight sensational performance. Cincinnati stopped Tom Brady's 52-game streak with a touchdown pass during a 13-6 win at Paul Brown Stadium the previous week.
The showing in Buffalo was erratic, but wound up being good enough.
"If we had a 10 last week on defense, we didn't quite make a 10 yesterday," Lewis said. "That's the way it's going to be through the NFL.
"Last week's recipe is not going to be next week's recipe. Whatever it took last week, it's going to have to be different people and hopefully we have new guys step up, come to the forefront and are there. We just have to keep going."
NOTES: Lewis disagreed with the two penalties that LB Vontaze Burfict had for unnecessary roughness in the first half. "I don't think either one he really did anything," Lewis said. Burfict also had a 15-yard penalty for tackling a runner by the facemask. ... Lewis was noncommittal about two players on the physically unable perform list who could return to practice as soon as this week. QB Zac Robinson developed a sore passing elbow during training camp, and RB Chris Pressley has been sidelined by a knee injury. The team has a three-week window for them to return.