After being criticized by some as his team's weakness, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton responded with a strong performance as his team gained sole possession of first place for the first time in nearly four years.
He'll have to overcome the Detroit Lions' turnover-focused defense to lead Cincinnati to a fifth win in six games Sunday at Ford Field.
The Bengals' 3-2 start was said by some to be in spite of Dalton, whose 82.9 passer rating through the first five games ranked ninth in the AFC. All-Pro receiver A.J. Green's underwhelming production - he had only 22 catches for 199 yards and one touchdown in Weeks 2-5 - was also partially pinned on the third-year quarterback.
Then Dalton completed 26 of 40 passes for 337 yards and three TDs in a 27-24 overtime win at Buffalo on Sunday, earning conference Player of the Week honors. Green also had a big day with six receptions for 103 yards and a TD.
"Andy has done a great job all season," said running back Giovani Bernard, whose 73.0 yards per game from scrimmage trails only Eddie Lacy (76.0) among rookies. "He's going through a lot of scrutiny but he's been able to block all that out and been able to play (well)."
The win propelled the Bengals (4-2) to sole possession of first place in the AFC North for the first time since winning the 2009 division title.
Despite a defense that ranks among the league's top 10 units (317.7 ypg) and an offense just outside of it (355.7 ypg), Cincinnati's victories have come by an average of 6.0 points.
The Bengals blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead before winning on Mike Nugent's 43-yard field goal in the extra period.
"As far as the biggest improvement, it would be to close the games out," said coach Marvin Lewis, whose team is preparing for its second of four road games in a five-week stretch. "That's going to be important. We had a couple of opportunities to close it out and didn't get it done."
After playoff appearances each of the last two years, many expected Cincinnati to be in contention for the division lead. Detroit currently co-leading the NFC North with Chicago, however, has come as a much bigger surprise.
The Lions' 13 takeaways - tied for fourth in the league after finishing 27th with only 17 last year - have fueled a 4-2 start, matching their 2012 win total. In each game they've had a positive or even turnover margin, something they accomplished seven times all of last season.
DeAndre Levy had two interceptions in last week's 31-17 win at Cleveland and is tied for the NFL lead with four.
"We still have a long way to go, but when you look at our four wins, when we win the turnover battle, it puts us in good position to win the game," coach Jim Schwartz said.
Matthew Stafford and the offense have scored 34 points off those takeaways, tied for seventh in the NFL.
Stafford comes off his seventh career game with four-plus TDs, three of which went to Joseph Fauria. The undrafted rookie, who became the first tight end in team history with three TD catches, has five scoring receptions among his seven overall.
Cincinnati has surrendered three TDs to tight ends this year, including one last week to Buffalo. However, Cleveland's Jordan Cameron is the only opposing tight end to record more than 49 yards against the Bengals.
Even if they can contain Fauria, the added attention should help clear space for Calvin Johnson, who has been limited to seven catches for 69 yards over the last two games while being slowed by a knee injury.
"If he (Fauria) starts to get more attention, somebody has to get less," Schwartz said. "Generally, that's Calvin for us. Not many defenses want to do that."
Johnson caught six passes for 123 yards and a score in the last meeting, a 23-13 Cincinnati home victory on Dec. 6, 2009, the Bengals' fourth straight in the series.
Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was fined $31,500 this week for a hit on Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden. He was already fined a league-record $100,000 for an illegal block versus Minnesota in Week 1.
Cincinnati leads the all-time series 7-3.
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