For the sixth time in head coach Marvin Lewis's 10 seasons the Bengals go into December above .500 after Sunday's 34-10 victory over Oakland thrust them into a tie for the final wild card at 6-5.
"Every week I've noticed our practices, attitude and preparation are a little more intense," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We're practicing and preparing like we have a chip on our shoulder. If we can keep doing that, we've got a chance to have even more success."
The Bengals have won three straight with every stat they need as the offensive and defensive lines dig in. In the winning streak the defense has allowed two touchdowns, the offense has scored 11 touchdowns in 13 red-zone trips, the Bengals have rung up back-to-back 100-yard games by a running back for the first time in three years, they haven't turned it over, and they've won three straight by 18 points or more for the first time since 1976.
"They had a rough start but those guys up front on both sides are becoming the strength of the team," said running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis. "I don't care what level you are in, when that happens then good things happen. Everybody has skill position players but you have to have those guys who dominate up front."
The Browns knocked off the Steelers and now the 6-5 Bengals are tied for Pittsburgh for the final wild card spot, and while the Steelers have the tiebreaker with last month's win, the Bengals can handle that with a victory in Pittsburgh on Dec. 23.
"We had to overcome October. We had an OK November, so now let's have a better December," Lewis said after his team followed up a winless October with a 3-1 November. "That's the key; we need to have a better December that we had in November. That's our key right now. That'll give us a chance for a great January."
Whitworth made Sunday's headlines when he got ejected for challenging Oakland's Lamarr Houston with 7:16 left after Houston took Dalton to the ground on what even Lewis agreed was a cheap shot. A hit when flags were flying on right tackle Andre Smith's false start.
"That's not the story of the game," Whitworth said. "The story of the game is we came out and for the third straight game played the way we need to play."
The story of the game is that while Palmer picked himself off the ground, Dalton picked up his mantle with another big-time effort that has the veterans and everyone else rallying to his side.
"That's the new guy I've got to protect is No. 14 and I've been doing that," Whitworth said. "He got hit late and I protected him."
Other team leaders like defensive tackle Domata Peko approved.
"It was good to see our guys looking after our quarterback. Whit was just trying to protect Andy," Peko said. "I'd do the same for Andy myself. If someone cheapshotted him, I'd stand up for him."
Why not take a shot? In the winning streak Dalton has thrown nine touchdowns with no interceptions with a 117.2 passer rating carved out of three straight triple digit ratings, a feat last done when Palmer did it six years ago.
"Andy's had a good season throughout. I really think when we were able to look at us during the bye week, our team came out of that with a focus of what we need to do. We've wasted some opportunities," Lewis said.
And Dalton is now certainly a team leader, a game captain four straight times after Lewis anointed him so during the bye.
"Whit made a statement," Dalton said.
So has Dalton with the quick, precise, unflappable and deadly play he showed at Texas Christian.
What he didn't have before the streak Dalton now has in gallons with that monstrous red-zone effort meshing with a running game that in the last two weeks has produced Green-Ellis's first back-to-back 100-yard efforts in his five NFL seasons, and on Sunday yielded the two longest runs of his career.
The red-zone splurge has coincided with the rise of rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. In the last three weeks, the 6-2, 210-pound Sanu has bullied and pranced for four touchdown catches, three on third-down, and on Sunday he had two. He salted the game away on third-and-five late in the second quarter when he went to the ground to take a bullet over the middle from Dalton to make it 21-0.
"It was a great play call," Dalton said. "The way they played it, I was thinking they were going to drop somebody else back in that zone. And when they didn't, I was able to put it on him quick. It was the perfect look for the play. (Sanu) is always in the right spot. He always does the right thing.
"He knows how to get open and he's a big guy. That helps make him a target in the red zone."
Sanu made it 14-0 in the first quarter on a spectacular one-handed grab with his outstretched left hand on a two-yard touchdown fade, as he did his best A.J. Green imitation from the week before dancing both feet in.
But Sanu insisted Green's catch was better.
"The guy was in his face and the ball was (on the defender) right here and he (snatched it)," Sanu said. "Mine was easier because I already beat the guy and the ball was out there. Not like A.J.'s catch."
Sanu says Dalton makes it easy.
"He's going to put it where you need to get it. It's just Andy being Andy week in and week out doing the same stuff."
Everyone knows how important the running game is every week. Lewis is now 32-7 with a 100-yard rusher. Rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith blew up Oakland on Cincinnati's third snap for a 48-yard run by The Law Firm, the longest run of his career. Then in the fourth quarter Whitworth and first-year left guard Clint Boling blew up the other side for a 39-yarder as rookie center Trevor Robinson ended his first month as a starter.
"When you're in those things and know the plays we are running, the things we have to get done up front and helping out those blocks; we have to do those things if we want to continue winning games," Green-Ellis said. "It's been a process. I said weeks ago when things weren't looking so (good) for us that we had new guys in the interior and it was my first year in the offense. The more and more we take plays and get more repetitions you always get better.
"On both sides of the ball the lines have been dominating opponents and when you win up front you win games."
Getting caught inside the 1-yard line both times isn't exactly going to help BJGE's rep as a grinder, but he and the Bengals don't mind. He's doing exactly what they have asked him to do and what they didn't have last year. He's 10-for-11 on third down, scores most of the time on the goal line, and runs where the playbook tells him. It's not his fault the non-grinder in the equation, running back Bernard Scott, tore his ACL on the eighth carry of his season.
This is why the Bengals love Green-Ellis's professionalism. After stacking Sunday's 129-yard day on top of the 101-yard day in Kansas City last week for his first-ever back-to-back 100-yard games in his 64th NFL appearance, he was asked about the two longest runs of his career.
"It doesn't matter. I'm happy we got the win. Honestly, I'm on to San Diego," he said of next Sunday's game. "I'm happy that the (Chargers video) is on my iPad by the time I get home. Start watching and getting ready."
But Sunday is always going to be remembered for the game Whitworth stood up for Dalton and not the game the Bengals cut down Palmer. At least in the locker room, where stretch runs are cultivated.
"My view was Whitworth did what he had to do," BJGE said. "That's his job to protect the quarterback. In those situations those things happen in the heat of the moment."