The Cincinnati Bengals hope to be playing meaningful games come December.
Getting to .500 would be a step in the right direction to making that a reality. They'll seek to reach that mark this Sunday, but have to be careful not to look past a Kansas City Chiefs team that is riding a six-game losing streak but gave another AFC North resident all it could handle last Monday night.
The Bengals sit 4-5 on the season and two games back of the Pittsburgh Steelers for second place in the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens are fronting the division with a mark of 7-2.
After winning three of its first four to begin the year, Cincinnati stumbled through a four-game losing streak, but stopped the bleeding last weekend with a confidence-building victory over the New York Giants.
Quarterback Andy Dalton threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers and did not turn the ball over in a 31-13 win over the defending Super Bowl champions, while Cincinnati's defense forced four turnovers. That included a pair of interceptions off Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
"It was a big win for us. We knew it was going to take our best effort to win and that's what happened," Dalton said. "We played well in all phases of the game. The defense did a good job of giving the offense the ball in great field position and we took advantage of it. Overall, it was a big team win today."
With seven games to go, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis knows his team needs to play like they did last Sunday each week from here on out.
"It gives us a chance to go to Kansas City next week one better than we would've been," Lewis said of the impact of the win over the Giants. "We've got to keep the same urgency and the same intensity and understanding that we had this week to go play on the road. Each one of our games means a lot. We can't waste any more opportunities. We have to play and be diligent in our jobs."
The job this week is knocking off a fading Chiefs team that sits at just 1-8 and hasn't won since a 27-24 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 23.
Kansas City almost pulled out another extra-quarter thriller this past Monday night, but instead lost a 16-13 decision to Pittsburgh.
Ryan Succop forced the extra time with a 46-year field goal as time expired, atoning for an earlier miss, and Kansas City received the ball first to begin overtime.
However, quarterback Matt Cassel saw a tipped pass intercepted by the Steelers, setting up a 23-yard game-winning kick by Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham less than a minute into overtime.
"We played a good football team at their place, and the guys played their hearts out," noted Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel. "We made a couple mistakes that helped them a little bit but if the guys keep playing that way, we can definitely get this ship turned. That's what it takes on a weekly basis."
Kansas City had not held an in-game lead at any point this season prior to going up 7-0 against Pittsburgh on Jamaal Charles' 12-yard touchdown run on the club's second possession of the game.
The Chiefs, who are 0-4 at home this year, have split 26 all-time meetings with the Bengals, but have lost the last two encounters. Both of those games took place in Cincinnati and Kansas City was a 27-20 winner the last time it hosted the Bengals in 2007.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Bengals had to love what they got out of the Dalton versus the Giants. The second-year quarterback logged his first game this season without a pick and now has 18 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions with a 91.1 QB rating.
"It's something we needed to have happen," Dalton said of not throwing an INT, "especially against a team like that. It's good to not have that streak anymore."
The redheaded slinger posted his fourth game this season with at least three touchdown passes and is just two TD throws shy of matching the 20 he had as a rookie last year.
Having a talented receiver like A.J. Green is a big boost to Dalton. His fellow sophomore Bengal capped Cincinnati's opening drive with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Dalton, giving him a scoring reception in eight straight games.
Green led the Bengals with seven catches for 85 yards versus the Giants and leads all NFL receivers with nine touchdown receptions. He also ranks third in the AFC with 58 catches and 820 yards while emerging as perhaps the best young wideout in the game.
The Chiefs secondary will certainly have to keep an eye on Green, but Dalton did a good job of spreading the wealth last weekend. Tight end Jermaine Gresham, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and rookie wideout Mohamed Sanu all hauled in scoring passes from the quarterback.
"They are guys who can make plays, and they complement A.J. very well," Crennel said of the rest of Cincinnati's receiving group. "Andy does a good job of spreading the ball around and getting the ball to all of his weapons."
Kansas City corners Brandon Flowers and Javier Arenas will have their focus on Green, but the duo have combined for only two interceptions this season -- both by Flowers.
Kansas City's defense did hold Pittsburgh to just 249 yards of net offense on Monday night -- a season best -- and were able to swarm the ball. Linebacker Justin Houston recorded his seventh sack of the season and forced a fumble, as did linebacker Derrick Johnson to go along with a game-high 13 tackles.
"Yeah, we can build on it," linebacker Tamba Hali said. "We have to find a way as a team to come up on the other side of this game. Instead of being in the 'L' column we have to be in the 'W.'"
For that to happen, the Chiefs will need to improve on their 30th-ranked scoring offense. That means keeping the game close so they can keep handing the ball off to Charles and their fourth-ranked ground game (149.0 YPG).
"He's a guy that has ability to make people miss," the Bengals' Lewis said of Charles. "He's a slashing, cutter-runner. ... You have to tackle him; he can make a guy miss in the hole."
Charles is fourth in the AFC with 734 rushing yards and found the end zone for the third time this season in the matchup with the Steelers. Tight end Tony Moeaki also had a solid game with a career-high 68 receiving yards on three catches, including a career-long 38-yard grab.
The two will try to get Cincinnati's attention this weekend.
"Kansas City is in this league for a reason," said Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap, "and we're going to have to show them why we're in here, too. I like to think we want it more and need it more, but they're not going to give it to us."
Dunlap was credited with 1 1/2 sacks as Cincinnati totaled four quarterback takedowns on Manning, who struggled to get the ball to star wideout Victor Cruz due to the coverage provided by Bengals corner Leon Hall.
Hall's assignment this weekend is likely Dwayne Bowe, who has made 49 receptions and scored three times this season while racking up 626 receiving yards.
The Chiefs also need to be mindful of Bengals punt returner Adam Jones, who set up a score with a 68-yard return versus the Giants and is second in the NFL an average of 17.0 yards per return.
The Bengals come to town a desperate team and will give their all against a Chiefs club with very little to play for. Still, it's too early for Kansas City to begin packing it in, so the effort will be there.
That might not be enough against Cincinnati and its must-win attitude.
"We got in a hole; our guys know that for us, the playoffs started against the Giants," noted Jones.
Cincinnati will likely focus on taking away Kansas City's run game, forcing the much-embattled Cassel to beat them. That hasn't worked yet this season for the Chiefs, who are stout against the pass but continue to struggle in ball control.
Kansas City is last in the NFL with a minus-20 turnover differential and could once again fumble away a victory on home turf.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 20, Chiefs 13