While the Cincinnati Bengals' surge has them in control of the AFC North, the Miami Dolphins must find a way to turn things around before their season slips away.
The visiting Bengals look for a fifth consecutive victory while trying to hand the Dolphins a fifth straight defeat Thursday night.
Paced by the recent strong play of quarterback Andy Dalton, Cincinnati (6-2) is the only team in the division at .500 or better, and it's in position to win five in a row for the second time in three seasons.
"We're very good," safety Chris Crocker said. "We're very, very, very good. But we have to play like it."
The Bengals have scored 103 points in the last three games, largely because of Dalton. The third-year player has passed for at least 325 yards in each of those contests and became the first Bengal to throw 11 touchdowns over a three-game span.
Dalton, intercepted just twice in that stretch, threw a career-high five TD passes in a 49-9 home win over the New York Jets on Sunday.
"This is where I want to be," said Dalton, who had five TDs and five INTs through the first five games. "This is how I want to be playing."
Four of Dalton's touchdowns against the Jets went to Marvin Jones, who became the first receiver to record that many in a game since Terrell Owens and Randy Moss in 2007.
A second-year pro playing alongside star A.J. Green, Jones finished with career highs of 122 yards and eight catches. He's recorded six of his team-leading seven touchdowns in the last three games.
"He's had the potential since he's been here," Dalton said. "I think he's just comfortable with everything that we're doing and everything that we're asking him to do."
The defense is ranked fifth in the NFL with 18.0 points allowed per game and eighth with 322.5 total yards given up. Cincinnati recorded four sacks and returned two interceptions for touchdowns Sunday during its most lopsided victory in coach Marvin Lewis' 11 seasons.
However, Lewis wants his team to move on and get focused on Miami during this short week.
"We've got to be the best team Thursday night, plain and simple," he said. "It's us and the Dolphins and, we've got to be the best team. There's no other challenge. We knew the schedule. That's the way it is. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. You come, be ready to go."
The desperate Dolphins' four-game slide is their worst since a seven-game skid to open 2011. Miami (3-4) blew a 14-point halftime lead at New England on Sunday, getting outscored 24-0 in the final two quarters of a 27-17 loss.
"Obviously we aren't at an all-time high right now," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "But we've got to get back on track. That's the only option we have with a short week."
Though the Dolphins have been outscored 67-24 in the second half of the past four games after outscoring their first three opponents 41-16 in the final two quarters, they've led in each of the last three contests. They've held the lead or been tied in the fourth quarter of two.
"We have to do a better job to close out games," said receiver Mike Wallace, who has two 100-yard receiving games and one TD in his first season with the Dolphins. "We just have to step on their throat. We can't let up, that's all - the whole team, in all three phases."
Tannehill has thrown five TDs in the last two games, but seven of his nine interceptions have come in the past four. He boasts a 60.9 fourth-quarter passer rating and has been sacked a league-high 32 times, with the latter playing a big part in his five lost fumbles.
Brandon Gibson has caught three of Tannehill's 11 touchdowns, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Patriots.
Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas have helped Miami rush for 276 yards in the last two games, including a season-high 156 against the Patriots. The Bengals are eighth in the league with 97.2 yards per game allowed on the ground, though they're likely to be without starting middle linebacker Ray Maualuga after he injured his knee and suffered a concussion against the Jets.
Miami coach Joe Philbin still believes his team is capable of getting back on track.
"If you don't have a strong locker room, if you don't have good character individuals, I think it could be a concern," he said. "I have a lot of faith in our guys. I believe in them. I think we'll get this thing right and fixed. We have to do it quickly; this is a good team coming in here on Thursday night."
Miami has won the last two meetings with the Bengals, both in Cincinnati. The most recent came last Oct. 7, when Tannehill didn't throw a touchdown or an interception and the Dolphins picked off Dalton twice in a 17-13 victory. Green had nine receptions for 65 yards and a score.
The Associated Press News Service
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