CINCINNATI – Bengals coach Marvin Lewis spent the last day of his bye weekend watching NFL games on television and getting a read on how the rest of the league is doing.
"You have to play good at quarterback in order to win," Lewis said. "That stands out if you look at each and every game. You have to take care of the ball on offense and play efficient at quarterback. Turnovers beat you and if you don't make plays from that position, you have a hard time."
It wasn't so much an epiphany as a foretelling. On Sunday, the Bengals (3-4) bring a struggling quarterback — Andy Dalton and his interception streak — into a pivotal game against one of the NFL's best of all time.
Peyton Manning is back to playing at a best-ever level, leading the Denver Broncos (4-3) to the top of the AFC West. Manning has passed for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of his last four games, the first to do so since Steve Young in 1998. He's thrown for at least 300 yards in his last five games, matching his personal best from 2009 with Indianapolis.
The Colts cut their ties with Manning after a neck injury raised doubts about whether he could ever play at the same level again. No questioning that now.
"It's hard to say that he's not," said Bengals cornerback Leon Hall, who watched the Broncos beat the Saints 34-14 on Sunday night. "He's been doing well, putting up a lot of good numbers, spreading the ball around to receivers and tight ends, I don't know how the numbers compare, but as far as how he looks on film, I think he's pretty damn close."
The Broncos have scored 37, 21, 35 and 34 points in their last four games, getting a little more comfortable with Manning's way of directing things at the line of scrimmage. And Manning has been rounding into form, too, after recovering from his neck problems.
"Well, certainly, it was a lot of unknown before this season," Manning said. "I think there still is. This is a new team and nobody knew how this team would form chemistry-wise. I didn't know what my situation would be. I mentioned early on that I'm feeling my way out. We're finding out our identity. I think we are still doing that."
Everyone in Cincinnati knows his identity against the Bengals: Perfect.
Manning is 7-0 career against the Bengals with 17 touchdowns, only three interceptions and a 107 passer rating. He's thrown for at least three touchdowns in four of the seven games, including a four-TD game in 2006.
Cincinnati is one of seven teams that have never beaten him. The Bengals are getting him at close to his best again.
"I think what he's done has been remarkable," coach John Fox said. "He's continuing to rehab every day. I don't know that he's all the way back, but he's well on his way for sure."
The Bengals have concerns about their own quarterback. Dalton has thrown an interception in every game this season and in eight straight overall, including a playoff loss to the Texans last season. He's avoided sacks by getting rid of the ball quickly, but the coaches have stresses holding onto it a bit longer to extend plays.
And, three days after watching other NFL quarterbacks on television, Lewis challenged his own to become more of a leader, along with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. As a rookie last season, Dalton let the veterans and the coaches handle issues with the offense.
Lewis wants his quarterback to start asserting himself.
"We want Andy to take control of the football team," Lewis said. "That's the thing. A year ago everything was new, and now he has an understanding of everything he needs to do. Now, let's go do it and let's be great at it and let's get the other guys to do their jobs even better."
It was an out-of-character comment for Lewis, who prefers to handle things quietly and internally. It underscored the sense that the Bengals' season is in jeopardy at the midpoint. They've lost three in a row and are 1-3 against the rest of the AFC North.
"What it comes down to is me being and hopefully doing enough that it is going to satisfy him," Dalton said. "I don't have any doubt that I have everything that will please him in whatever was said. He's expecting a lot out of me and Rey and a lot of the leaders on this team. It wouldn't have been said if we weren't where we were.
"Maybe this is the fire that we need."
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.
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