Bengals lead division by 2 games near midpoint
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Everything is going the Bengals' way approaching the midpoint of the season.
A pair of last-second victories has left them 5-2 with a two-game lead in the AFC North, where no other team has so much as a winning record. Victories at Buffalo and at Detroit the last two weeks show they've learned how to win the tough ones on the road.
They're on a course for their first division title since 2009.
''These last couple have come down to the end and we're finding ways to win the game,'' quarterback Andy Dalton said. ''For us, it's big. We're 5-2 now and it sets us up nice for where we want to go.''
The only major concern this week is replacing top cornerback Leon Hall, who hurt his right Achilles tendon during the 27-24 win in Detroit on Sunday. He was getting tests on Monday to confirm that the initial diagnosis that it's a season-ending injury.
The Bengals have gotten by without him so far this season. They lost at Cleveland and beat New England with Hall sidelined by a hamstring injury. Adam ''Pacman'' Jones and second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick will get more responsibilities the rest of the way.
Hall tore his other Achilles tendon during the 2011 season but returned last year and went back to performing as the Bengals' top cornerback. Hall knew he'd severely hurt the other one on Sunday when he fell while defending a pass in the end zone.
''I feel bad for him,'' Kirkpatrick said on Monday. ''It's the second time it's happened to him and it's the opposite leg. I asked him if it's normal to happen to the other leg and he said it's somewhat normal. I just feel bad for him.''
The Bengals host the New York Jets (4-3) on Sunday, their only home game in a five-game stretch that they knew would be the pivotal part of the season. They're 2-0 in the stretch, with both wins coming on field goals by Mike Nugent.
The Bengals pinned the Bills in overtime, forced a punt and got Nugent's 43-yard kick for a 27-24 win. They followed the same script with the score tied in the fourth quarter in Detroit, pinning the Lions with a punt, forcing a punt and then getting Nugent's 54-yard field goal as time ran out for another 27-24 win.
In the past, those are the kinds of games the Bengals would lose by making a big mistake. They've learned to keep their cool and let their opponent make the game-turning gaffe, a sign of growth for a young team.
''It's very contagious seeing the coaches under control and thinking, 'Let's figure it out, let's win this game,''' Nugent said on Monday. ''Not only do we see it in the coaches, but we see it in the captains, the leaders of the team. Those guys - especially Andy - they've done a great job stepping up and commanding a lot out of everyone. I think everyone kind of falls into that role.''
Dalton has been the biggest factor in the surge to the top. In the wins at Buffalo and Detroit, Dalton completed 68 percent of his passes for 709 yards with six touchdowns, one interception and a superb 119.7 passer rating.
''He did a good job yesterday distributing the football in the one-on-one (matchups) and what we perceived to be the weakness in their coverage,'' coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday. ''He got the ball in the right spots and was accurate with it.''
Four different players have caught touchdown passes in the last two games, an indication Dalton is finding the open receiver. Marvin Jones has caught two of the touchdown passes, and rookies Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard have caught one each, giving the Bengals options other than All-Pro receiver A.J. Green.
That emerging balance has played a big role in putting the Bengals in control of their division.
''To rack up these wins on the road is very important, and it does a lot to our team and the confidence and pushing us higher with the potential that we have,'' Jones said.
NOTES: The Bengals have more than 2,000 tickets left for the Jets game. They've sold out their first three home games. ... Lewis said the Bengals won't try to bring in a cornerback to replace Hall, figuring they have enough depth at the spot to carry on without him. ''We're not going to get anybody off the street that's going to outplay anyone here in the building,'' Lewis said.
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