NFL Preview - Cincinnati (7-3-1) at Tampa Bay (2-9) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Perhaps it's time for Cincinnati Bengals 2.0.
The Bengals were the NFL's last unbeaten team of the season before a humbling primetime loss to the New England Patriots began a 0-2-1 stretch that had them sitting barely above .500 by mid-October.
Things have changed for the better since, however, and Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis is now leading a team that's won four of its last five games and holds a lead - albeit a slim one - over a cast of three-games-above-.500 characters in a hyper-competitive AFC North Division.
"We control everything, and that's all we have to worry about," Lewis said. "This is what you play for. This is the way it's supposed to be every year. That's the only thing we can control. Our guys have earned an opportunity to be in this position, and now to take advantage of this position."
The return to prosperity has coincided in some manner to the return of top- flight wide receiver A.J. Green, who was hurt in Week 1, missed the bulk of Week 2 and then was out entirely for three games in October. His first two games back in uniform yielded just six catches, but he crossed the 100-yard barrier in a defeat of New Orleans in Week 11, then had 12 catches for 121 yards last week against Houston.
"It's been big," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "For him to have a performance like he did - at least that's what we expect from him. He's so talented we feel like he matches up with almost anybody."
Mohamed Sanu began making his own name during Green's down time and he's now leading the team with both 719 receiving yards and five touchdowns. In the backfield, second-round draft pick Jeremy Hill is the new focal point of a run game that's seven-best in the league at 125.6 yards per week.
Hill had 87 yards and scored once against Houston, and veteran Giovani Bernard, who'd missed three games, came back with 67 yards against the Texans as well.
"We're starting to find a groove and I think that's very important," Hill said. "We're finding our spots at the right time in the season. We're finally getting our groove back."
For the Bengals' Week 13 opponent, Tampa Bay, running hasn't been nearly so productive.
Doug Martin was a 1,926-yard (from scrimmage) revelation as a rookie in 2012, but he's been an oft-injured afterthought for the most part since, appearing in just six games in all of last season and in just six of the 11 that the Buccaneers have played so far in 2014.
He's averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, and Tampa Bay as a team has racked up just 2.7 yards per attempt in its last two games against Washington and Chicago.
Cincinnati allowed 4.5 yards per attempt in its first nine games, but 3.1 in its last two games.
"Since I've been here, the injuries have stopped Doug's progress," Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said. "But I haven't seen anything to say that he can't get back to form. Injuries would stop anyone. He's back healthy now, so we're looking for him to finish up strong these last five-plus games."
His team enters those final five games in a unique contending position - they're just two games out of first place in the NFC South - in spite of a dreadful 2-9 record.
All four teams in the South are at least three games under .500, while all four teams in the Bengals' AFC North are at least three games above .500. The North is 10-1-1 against the South this season, though the South's lone with came from Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh in Week 4.
The Bucs lost five in a row between that game and a 27-7 defeat of Washington in Week 11, but fell backward last week via a 21-13 loss at Chicago in which they committed four turnovers and misfired after amassing a 10-0 halftime lead. Quarterback Josh McCown was picked off twice and lost a fumble against the team for which he'd played from 2011 to 2013.
He threw a career-high 48 times and competed 25, for 341 yards.
"(No one) in our division expected to be where we're all sitting right now and it's unfortunate," he said. "But the reality of our division right now is that it is still up for grabs, and we're not in the favorable position but we're not out. You don't want it to come like this, with this kind of record. Hopefully we can continue to put ourselves in position to do that and it starts by beating Cincinnati."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Putting McCown Down
Because the Tampa Bay passer does have some respectable weapons in the forms of wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, it's more incumbent on the Cincinnati defense - particularly the front seven - to put pressure on him and not leave the job entirely to the secondary. Evans and Jackson have size and athletic ability and could cause some big trouble if McCown's uniform stays clean.
Similar to the Cincinnati defense's task against McCown, it's an absolute necessity for the Buccaneers' front seven to get to Dalton or risk being eaten alive by a prodigious offense. Tampa Bay is just 22nd in passing yards allowed (252.1 per week) and 20th in interceptions (eight in 11 games), but there is some pressure talent in the form of tackle Gerald McCoy, who has 7.5 sacks in 10 games played.
Cincinnati is in the midst of a second opportunity to prove itself as an elite NFL team, a task it failed badly at performing in its first go-round earlier this season.
If the lessons painfully learned at New England in October have truly been absorbed, then the Bengals won't fall victim to a lesser foe here, even though it's a post-holiday road game. Get to 8-3-1, or risk revoking of your "contender" card.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 27, Buccaneers 14