By drubbing the defending champions, the Bengals have given themselves a second chance.
A 31-13 win over the New York Giants on Sunday moved Cincinnati (4-5) back to the periphery of the playoff chase with a couple of games ahead against struggling teams. The Bengals will get a chance to make it interesting.
The lopsided victory also represented a breakthrough. The Bengals haven't been able to beat a good team the past two seasons, going 0-6 against AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore. They went 0-8 last season against other teams that reached the playoffs.
This one was notable, even if a lot of their fans missed it.
"Yeah, man, that was huge for us," defensive tackle Domata Peko said on Monday. "We really needed that win. It was important because they're world champions and when you can compete against a team like that, it shows us we can compete against anybody."
With its season on the line, Cincinnati played its best game of the season by far. Andy Dalton threw a career-high four touchdown passes, the defense sacked Eli Manning a season-high four times and caused four turnovers, and Adam "Pacman" Jones returned a punt 68 yards to set up a touchdown.
"We got rolling pretty good," safety Chris Crocker said. "The test for us was when we got up. We were pretty confident we'd come out of the gates really fast. It was just when we got up, how would we respond? That's been our Achilles heel this season."
The Bengals have gotten pushed around in the second half for most of the season. They blew a 14-3 lead and lost to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium, then had the Broncos rally in the fourth quarter for a win a week ago.
The back-to-back losses left them with a four-game losing streak and cost them credibility with fans. Cincinnati sold out its first four home games — two more than last season — but couldn't fill Paul Brown Stadium for the Giants game. There were nearly 9,000 empty seats on a sunny, 70-degree afternoon.
"You never know when we're going to have a sellout," Crocker said. "I thought we would have, having the Super Bowl champions coming in here."
The Bengals' best game of the season was blacked out on local television.
"That stinks," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said on Monday. "It's terrible. None of us wants that for the fans in this area. But it is what it is. And the key for us is we need to keep putting them back to back and get ourselves on a hot streak and the fans will get plenty of chances to see us."
There's still a chance to win 'em back.
The Bengals play at Kansas City — last in the AFC West — then host Oakland, which is 3-6 and coming off a 55-20 loss to the Ravens. They're at San Diego (4-5), home against Dallas (4-5) and at Philadelphia (3-6) before finishing at Pittsburgh and at home against Baltimore.
The tiebreakers aren't in their favor — Cincinnati is 1-3 against the division and 2-5 against the AFC — but the impressive win over the Giants gave them some confidence heading into a favorable stretch of the schedule.
"I think guys realized that there's no reason to keep talking about it," coach Marvin Lewis said. "At the end of the day, you can't talk about it. You've got to do it. Too much has been said."
NOTES: Lewis said C Kyle Cook will start rehabilitation work on his surgically repaired right ankle this week. Cook hurt the ankle in the final preseason game and went on injured reserve, but could return this season. Lewis said it's too early to judge whether he'll be able to play again. ... LB Ben Jacobs of Fresno State was signed to the practice squad. OT Jeff Adams was released from the squad.
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