CINCINNATI — The Bengals are in rare territory for them: Unbeaten after three games with an early chance to take control of their division.
A 28-24 win in Baltimore left the Bengals (3-0) one of three unbeaten teams in the AFC, along with New England and Denver.
Since the 1990 season, 75 percent of the teams that started a season 3-0 have reached the playoffs.
What’s more encouraging is the way they’ve gotten there. The defense looks vintage with end Michael Johnson back and tackle Geno Atkins fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery. And Andy Dalton is playing better than ever in his fifth season.
“The way we’re clicking right now, it would be naive not to think that this is really a great opportunity for us to escalate in our division and within the AFC,” receiver Marvin Jones said on Monday. “It’s important to note that, keeping a mindset we’re in this play-by-play, game-by-game. But you obviously see the big picture and right now, it’s in our favor.”
Cincinnati is a game up on Pittsburgh (2-1), which lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for several weeks to a sprained left knee on Sunday. Cleveland (1-2) has gone through more quarterback issues. And the Ravens are three games back with a home loss to the Bengals.
The Bengals are 3-0 for the second consecutive season and the eighth time in franchise history. They host Kansas City at home on Sunday with a chance to go 4-0 for only the third time. Their best starts were 6-0 in 1975 and 1988.
“We’ve had this start before,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “They know what it takes, and I think that gives you confidence.
“It’s like going to take an exam, being well-prepared and sitting in the front row as opposed to sneaking into the back of the class. That’s the way they should be.”
The prized pupil so far is Dalton, who is off to the best start of his career. He has completed 66 percent of his throws for 866 yards with eight touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 121.
Twice on Sunday, he rallied the Bengals from behind in the fourth quarter. He made an on-target throw that A.J. Green turned into an 80-yard touchdown, and then led the Bengals 80 yards in six plays to the winning score.
Dalton completed passes of 23, 19 and 31 yards on the drive. He changed the play to set up a 7-yard touchdown to Green with 2:10 to go.
“He’s taken himself to another level and I think the real great players in this league, that’s what they do,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said on Monday. “Not that he deserves that kind of praise yet. We’ve got a lot of games to win in order for him to reach that.”
After their 3-0 start last season, the Bengals had two losses and a tie and wound up settling for another wild-card berth. They’ve reached the playoffs each of their past four seasons and lost the opening game every time.
“We can’t start feeling (good about) ourselves just because we’re 3-0,” safety George Iloka said. “I think that’s kind of what hurt us last year. We started feeling ourselves, started getting into the power rankings, things like that.”