Bengals ‘right in the middle’ of AFC playoff picture as second half of season begins

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor shouts during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
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Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor shouts during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

CINCINNATI -- The bye week couldn’t have gone much better for the Cincinnati Bengals. While enjoying the downtime right near the midway point of the season, the Bengals saw the division open up with the three other teams failing to get a win in Week 10.

Cincinnati got back to work Monday after a five-day break from practices, and the message the players left with remains the same as they prepare for Sunday’s game at Las Vegas (5-4): There are no easy games, and everything is still in front of them.

The Ravens and Browns suffered losses to the Dolphins and Patriots, respectively, this week, and the Steelers tied the Lions. The Bengals (5-4) moved up to third in the AFC North thanks to the lopsided loss that dropped the Browns to 5-5.. The division is up for grabs. The Ravens remain in the lead at 6-3 and the Steelers are 5-3-1.

“The message is things are not going to get easier,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “They’re gonna get harder these last eight games, but about everybody in the league right now is 5-4 or 5-5 and we’re right there in the middle of it, and so we’ve just got to take care of business starting this week on the road in Las Vegas.”

The Raiders, coming off a bad loss to the Chiefs on Sunday night, are right next to the Bengals in the AFC rankings, where there is little separation among the top 12 teams. The Titans (8-2) are the only team with more than six wins, and only four teams have fewer than five wins.

Seeing some of the unexpected results this season feels normal to Taylor..

“I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons over the last 10 or 11 years that anybody can beat anybody on any day and you’ve got to bring your best game,” he said. “You’ve got to prepare against every team like they’re going to be playing for the Super Bowl that year because if you don’t, you’re going to look pretty foolish. And so again, we’ve just got to prepare. The Raiders are a great football team, and we’re gonna be ready for their best and they’re coming off a tough loss last night. But again, it’s a great opportunity for ourselves to regain some momentum on the road, getting a win and putting our best foot forward, so there’s a lot that goes into this game this week.”

Safety Jessie Bates said watching games over the weekend helped reinforce the idea that despite two disappointing losses going into the bye, the Bengals still have a chance to do something special this season.

Prior to the 41-16 loss to the Browns in Week 9, Cincinnati hadn’t lost a game by more than three points.

“There’s a lot of teams that have four, five, six wins in our division and we face every single one of them to end the season,” Bates said. “It just puts that mindset that it’s on us at this point. We set ourselves up to have some success and play for a reason at the end of the year. I think that will be exciting. I think that we have the right guys in the locker room to step up to that challenge. ... Everybody’s been saying the same thing. We have everything that we want in front of us. We just have to attack it week in and week out.”

The defense especially will be looking to recapture the success it enjoyed the first seven weeks of the season when the Bengals were limiting offenses like the Ravens’ to 17 points and putting their own offense in position to win games.

Against the Jets, the Bengals gave up 508 yards, and the Browns scored 41 points against them.

Cincinnati will be without linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither and safety Brandon Wilson, who both went on injured reserve last week. It was already known Wilson would be out for the season because of an ACL tear, but Taylor said Monday that Davis-Gaither is undergoing surgery on his foot Wednesday and also likely will be done for the year.

On Monday, the Bengals signed eighth-year safety Michael J. Thomas from the practice squad to the roster, and signed linebacker Austin Calitro to the practice squad after he had been with the team in the 2020 offseason.

Tight end Mitchell Wilcox went on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday as well. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie came off that list Saturday, and Taylor said linebacker Markus Bailey is on track to return from the COVID list Thursday if all continues to go well.

“We continue to see guys step up at every position,” Taylor said. “I won’t outright name one position, but we need that depth to step up over the course of the season, because every team is going to lean on that. I think that we’ve done a really good job of adding players who can provide competition and provide depth and we’re in a good spot with the roster right now.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Raiders, 4:05 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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