Bengals a little healthier as they return from bye, still 2 games up in AFC North

A little time off did a lot to recharge the AFC North leaders.

The Bengals had a light workout on Monday after getting some time to heal and regroup. Their late-in-the-season bye weekend gave several of their injured players a few more days to heal and get back on the field.

They really needed the break.

"I think it will be very helpful," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said on Monday after the workout. "Eleven weeks in a row, plus four preseason games is a hell of a stretch, you know what I mean? A couple other teams had to do it, too.

"It was a great timing for us, great to get away from them and them to get away from us and get their bodies right and then come back fresh. Being two games in front of the division with five to go is a great position to be in."

Cincinnati (7-4) is in control of the AFC North heading into a favorable stretch of the schedule. The Bengals have three of their last five games at home, where they're 5-0. Only one opponent currently has a winning record — Indianapolis (7-4), which has to come to Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals are tied with the Colts for fourth-best record in the AFC. Denver and Kansas City are 9-2, New England 8-3. They lead the AFC North by two games over the Steelers (5-6) and Ravens (5-6), who play on Thursday night in Baltimore.

The bye also worked out well as far as travel. They got some time to rest for their last long trip of the regular season, playing on Sunday in San Diego. The Chargers (5-6) are in a group of six teams tied for the final wild card berth after winning in Kansas City 41-38 on Sunday.

"We have five games to really make a run and put our name out there," receiver Marvin Jones said. "The bye week was a big help. I've never had a late bye week like that. We're ready to make this last push and go for it all."

The Bengals reached the bye with several players limited by nagging injuries. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has missed the last three games with a concussion and an injured left knee, but was back on the field Monday. Several others who have been limited joined in as well.

"We didn't do a whole lot, but it's good to have them back," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said.

Linebacker Vincent Rey, who filled in while Maualuga was out, expects to return to his backup role.

"He looked great," Rey said. "I'm glad to have him back. He makes plays. I'm looking forward to him being out there on defense."

One of the priorities coming out of the bye is to cut down on the interceptions that have forced them to rally from behind. Andy Dalton has thrown eight interceptions in the last three games, two of them returned for touchdowns.

During a 41-20 win over Cleveland heading into the bye, Dalton threw a pair of interceptions in the first quarter that helped the Browns pull ahead 13-0. Cornerback Joe Haden had both interceptions, returning the second one for a touchdown.

Gruden said receiver A.J. Green went one way and Dalton expected him to go a different way on the first interception. He said Green cut short his route on the other interception, allowing Haden to jump in front.

The defense and special teams each scored a touchdown during a 31-point second quarter that put the game out of reach.

Some of the interceptions have been the result of off-target throws and poor decisions by the quarterback.

"Everybody throws interceptions from time to time," Gruden said. "If you're going to play quarterback, you're going to throw an interception from time to time. You can't dwell on it, you've got to move on and figure out a way to win the game.

"Luckily our defense and special teams had a hell of an outing and gave us a huge lead and it didn't become a factor. But obviously eight interceptions in three weeks is too many."

The Bengals have struggled to convert third downs, and their running game and pass protection have been inconsistent in the last few games, contributing to an overall decline in the offense's production.

"There's not really a part of the game that any team right now, after week 11, can say they're perfect at," Gruden said. "Even the best teams statistically, they're having issues in the running game or maybe protection or what have you."


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