Created on Friday, 25 October 2013 Written by JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — By winning a pair of close games on the road with last-second field goals, the Bengals have taken control of the AFC North and won over many of their doubters.
Can they win over their home crowd this week?
Cincinnati (5-2) has a two-game lead in the division as it gets ready to host the resurgent New York Jets (4-3), who also are coming off a last-second win. Even so, the Bengals had thousands of tickets unsold less than a week before kickoff. The game finally sold out Thursday.
It's their history.
They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, a stretch of futility tied for seventh longest in NFL history. They haven't done very well at home in recent years, going 11-13 at Paul Brown Stadium from 2010-12.
They might finally be establishing a home-field advantage. They're 3-0 at home this season and packing the place.
Quite a change.
"I still remember kicking the field goal to win it against Buffalo (23-20 in 2011) and there was about 10 people in the stands," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We've had some ugly, ugly shows, and enough to where sometimes the other team's got more fans in the stands than we do.
"We've started to create that environment. Hopefully we can continue."
The Jets will want to keep 'em quiet by clamping down on Andy Dalton, who's had two of the best games of his career back to back, and giving rookie quarterback Geno Smith enough time to get rid of the ball against one of the NFL's top defensive lines.
Smith threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown last Sunday, but overcame it and led the Jets to a 30-27 overtime victory over New England that left them a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East. Smith has made the usual rookie mistakes — eight touchdowns, 11 interceptions — and also pulled off comebacks that seemed beyond his less than a year of experience.
He's the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to have four winning drives in the first seven games of career.
"We are a confident bunch, but it does help us going forward," he said of the latest comeback. "Hopefully, we can string together some more wins and just start building momentum as the season goes along."
Five things to watch at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday:
MORE GOOD THAN BAD FROM GENO? The second-round pick has shown a knack for overcoming his mistakes and doing something good at the end. Trouble is, sometimes the mistakes are too much. How will he do against a defense that has brought out the worst in Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady this season?
The Jets need some consistency out of him Sunday.
"I know with that consistency at the quarterback (position), it usually leads to success with the team," Smith said. "That's something I'm trying to do, something I pride myself in — being a consistent decision-maker. That's what I have been trying to do and it's something that has really hit home with me as of late."
GENO VS. GENO: One of Smith's problems has been holding onto the ball too long. He's been sacked 25 times, the fifth-most sacks allowed in the league, and will be the focus of a defense led by tackle Geno Atkins, who has four sacks.
He's facing a defense that's ranked No. 9 in the league but lost top cornerback Leon Hall to injury last week.
"We have such a great defensive line, they are going to do their job to get back there," linebacker Vontaze Burfict said.
ANDY'S DANDY STRETCH: Dalton has played two of the best games of his career, leading the Bengals to a 27-24 win in overtime at Buffalo and a 27-24 victory in Detroit. He threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns in each game — only the second time he's done it in back-to-back games. His passer rating of 135.9 at Detroit was the highest of his three-year career.
"I felt really comfortable out there," Dalton said. "I thought the ball was coming out of my hand well, and the guys made some big catches."
GETTING THEIR KICKS: Both teams have really needed their kickers lately. Mike Nugent kicked a 43-yarder in overtime at Buffalo and a 54-yarder in Detroit on the last play of the game. Nick Folk made 42-yarder in overtime for Jets' win over New England, leaving him 16 for 16 on field goal attempts.
It won't be a surprise if the kickers are front and center again on Sunday.
"Points come at a premium in this league," Nugent said. "Every single point matters."
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: The Bengals haven't had a winning record at Paul Brown Stadium since 2009, when they went 6-2. The last three seasons, they've gone 3-5, 4-4 and 4-4. They can improve to 4-0 at home on Sunday and make a few more inroads on getting those fans back.
"We haven't had as good of a home record around here as we should," Whitworth said. "Some of that was not having a lot of people here and not being able to create that environment, and some of it is just being able to go out and prove that you can continuously win at home."
Here's their chance.