5 keys to a successful second half of the season for the Bengals

ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 18: Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks to throw against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 18: Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks to throw against the Buffalo Bills during the first half at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Despite an up-and-down first half of the season, the Cincinnati Bengals are right in the thick of the AFC North race with Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Here are five keys to a strong second half for Cincinnati:

1. Improve defensively.

One of the big stories of the first half of the season was the decline of the Bengals defense, which ranks 24th in the league in efficiency according to Football Outsiders. The good news: Pittsburgh is 25th in the same category. Bad news? Baltimore is sixth.

Coordinator Paul Guenther put his team on notice during bye week practices and says he likes what he has seen so far.

2. Protect Andy Dalton.

The Bengals have the next-to-worst pass protection in the league according to Football Outsiders, something that can’t continue.

They have enough weapons Dalton can be very dangerous if he has time, but the quarterback trends more toward Bad Andy when he is under pressure.

3. Keep running the ball.

After a slow start, the running game has gotten revved up lately. The Bengals rank seventh in the league in rushing yards (120.2 per game) and ninth in yards per carry (4.4). A good running game can take pressure of the quarterback and shorten the game, lessening the exposure of a questionable defense.

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 23: Jeremy Hill #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals carries the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 23: Jeremy Hill #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals carries the ball during the first quarter of the game against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

4. See how far Andy Dalton can take them.

The Bengals quarterback is sixth in the NFL in Football Outsiders Defensive Yards Above Replacement, the football version of baseball’s WAR.

That puts him ahead of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (14th) and Joe Flacco of Baltimore (31st), who have taken their teams to the promised land but aren’t playing as well this season.

Is he ready to be a player who wills his team to wins on a nearly weekly basis? Looks like he needs to be this season.

5. Take advantage of the schedule.

Baltimore still has to play Dallas and New England, two teams Cincinnati already lost to, while Pittsburgh still has to play a Dallas team that already beat the Bengals and is 7-1.

With four more division games, including two against the Ravens, the Bengals are in good shape to control their own destiny -- if they can shore up some of the deficiencies that plagued them in the first eight games.