CINCINNATI (AP) J.J. Watt and Carlos Dunlap are watching each other from afar, seeing which one takes advantage of the chance to nose ahead in the NFL sacks race.
The defensive ends from the Texans and Bengals were tied for second with 8 1/2 sacks heading into their Monday night game at Paul Brown Stadium. They entered the game behind New England's Chandler Jones, who has 10 1/2.
And don't think they're not paying attention.
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''When you're competing for leading the league in sacks, you see those names,'' Dunlap said. ''Anytime somebody is tied with you or above you, you take note to try to outdo them that day. We know with our D-line we can set the tone and change the whole thing.''
The Bengals (8-0) are off to the best start in franchise history in part because they've fixed one of their biggest problems. End Michael Johnson left for Tampa Bay last season and tackle Geno Atkins wasn't fully recovered from a torn ACL. The Bengals finished last in the league with only 20 sacks.
Johnson returned as a free agent, and Atkins' knee is back to full strength, giving the line its missing versatility. Atkins has six sacks, tied with Carolina's Kawann Short for the league lead among interior linemen.
The Bengals have 23 sacks, which is three more than Houston and tied for fifth-most in the league. Denver leads with 30.
No Bengals player has ever led the league or the AFC in sacks during a season since it became an official statistic in 1982. The club record is 13 by Eddie Edwards in 1983. The unofficial team record is 22 by Coy Bacon in 1976.
By contrast, Watt led the league with 20 1/2 sacks in 2012. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year was the first to have a pair of 20-sack seasons. The league record is 22 1/2 sacks by the Giants' Michael Strahan in 2001.
The Texans (3-5) tied the franchise record with seven sacks during a 20-6 win over the Titans before their bye last weekend, which provided some healing time.
''I feel really good,'' Watt said. ''It was definitely very important to get that time. I feel very good, so I'm ready to roll.''
Watt had 2 1/2 sacks against Tennessee, moving him ahead of DeMarcus Ware (64 1/2) for third-most sacks in a player's first five seasons in the NFL. Watt had a sack in a club-record seven straight games from the end of last season through the first two games of this season.
''I respect what he's done,'' Dunlap said. ''He's done a lot of great things. He always does his job.''
Watt has excelled in the Texans' two playoff wins over Cincinnati in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He intercepted one of Andy Dalton's passes and returned it for a 29-yard touchdown and also had a sack during the first one. He had five solo tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss in the playoff game a year later.
The Bengals know all about how he can turn a game around with one spectacular play.
''You've got to know where he is,'' Dalton said. ''He does so much. He runs down running backs on the backside, he jumps around and makes big plays. Even in the passing game when he's not getting to the quarterback, he's sitting back and knowing when to jump and bat balls down.
''He's one of the most dominant players in this game. We understand that.''
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.
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