Originally posted on NESN.com  |  Last updated 11/26/12
With three straight losses in the rear view and more than half of the season still left to be decided, Marvin Lewis knew the Bengals’ season was at a turning point. At the time, the Bengals were just 3-4 and staring down a potential return to the AFC cellar, just one year after making a triumphant march into the playoffs. With so much riding on that next stretch of games, Lewis issued a challenge to the leaders of his football team. “We’re looking for our quarterback and our middle linebacker to take hold of our football team, and I think that’s important for us,” Lewis said to reporters. The challenge, if you weren’t already aware, was for Andy Dalton and Rey Maualuga to step up and be, well let’s call it “jerks.” The move was intended to inspire those leaders and ultimately spark their teammates. The move is apparently working, as there’s been a renaissance in Cincinnati in recent weeks. Both Dalton and Maualuga have become more vocal in the Bengals locker room, pushing their teammates to be more aggressive and focused. But even more important than the verbal leadership has been their ability to lead by example on the field. Since Lewis’ motivating remarks, Maualuga has led the Bengals defense to be one of the stingiest units in all of football, allowing just 60 points and forcing nine turnovers over the past four games. As for Dalton, he’s guided an offense that has put up 116 points and trounced opponents by double digits in three straight wins, including an 18-point rout of the New York Giants. At the time of Lewis’ call for leadership, Dalton had thrown just 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions through seven games. Since, it’s been an entirely different story. Dalton has thrown 10 touchdowns, and even ran for one, compared to just one turnover since being called upon to take a more proactive role on the team.  That production out of the passing game has been crucial for the Bengals, but Dalton’s ability to protect the football has been even more important. After starting the season with one of the worst turnover ratios in the league (a minus-six before Lewis’ speech), the Bengals have held a plus-seven advantage during their current stretch and are finally in the black on the season — even if only at plus-one. That sort of careful and consistent football has seen the Bengals rise from the edge of destruction back into the thick of the playoff race at a much more respectable 6-5. If the season were to end today, the Steelers, who are also 6-5, would hold the deciding tiebreaker, but this is a very different Bengals team than the one that fell 24-17 to Pittsburgh in Week 7. The post-rant Bengals are dedicated, focused and confident. They are excelling in nearly every aspect of the game, even getting solid production in the kicking game with Mike Nugent and in the kick return game with Adam Jones and Brandon Tate. Cincinnati hasn’t been a legitimate Super Bowl contender in nearly 20 years, since last year’s playoff team was considered more of a pretender than a championship-caliber squad. But the fortunes of the long troubled franchise appear to be shifting. The Bengals are on the hunt, and if their recent stretch is any indication, they’ll be prowling their way into the playoffs in just a few short weeks. And that’s one team nobody will want to play on wild card weekend. Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.
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