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With their recent play and a little help from two other teams, the Cincinnati Bengals have taken control of their playoff destiny.
The Bengals (7-5) look to extend their winning streak to four games when they host the lowly Oakland Raiders (2-10) on Sunday.
Cincinnati appeared to be playing its way out of contention when it dropped three in a row to fall to 4-5, including an embarrassing 49-41 loss to San Diego on Nov. 12 in which the Bengals blew a 28-7 halftime lead at home.
Since that defeat, Cincinnati has turned it around on both sides of the ball, winning three straight and putting itself in the postseason hunt.
The Bengals beat Baltimore 13-7 last Thursday, then watched as Kansas City and Denver, teams they trailed for AFC wild-card spots, both lost Sunday.
Cincinnati is in a five-way tie with the Chiefs, Broncos, Jacksonville and New York Jets for the final two playoff spots. If the season ended today, though, the Bengals would earn one of the spots thanks to a 5-3 conference record.
“We’ve been talking about controlling our own destiny since the second half of the season has been here,” receiver Chad Johnson said. “If we win these next four, we’re going to be in there anyway.”
It won’t be easy. After playing Oakland, the Bengals visit Indianapolis and Denver before closing out the season at home against Pittsburgh.
Still, both the offense and the defense are making plays for Cincinnati, giving the team plenty of reason for optimism.
Carson Palmer has thrown for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in the last four contests, while Johnson has made 32 catches for 664 yards in those games and leads the NFL with 1,146 receiving yards.
The Bengals beat Cleveland 30-0 on Nov. 26, the team’s first shutout in 17 years, and the seven points allowed in two games is the fewest a defense has allowed in back-to-back games in franchise history.
The defense is improved and the Bengals are getting healthy just as they prepare for their most important games of the season. Right guard Bobbie Williams is expected to play this week, while center Rich Braham and left tackle Levi Jones are questionable with knee injuries but expected back soon.
Perhaps the main focus right now for Cincinnati is avoiding looking ahead— something coach Marvin Lewis doesn’t foresee happening.
“There shouldn’t be a letdown,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep playing. If I was worried about that, I would have worried about us looking past Cleveland to play Baltimore, and I don’t think that occurred, either. Every time you go out there, you’ve got an opportunity to lose a game if you don’t play well enough. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
The Raiders have played well enough on defense to have more than two victories, but the team has been unable to score enough points to make that happen.
Oakland has dropped five in a row, its second five-game losing streak this season, and has scored 14 points or less in five straight games for the first time in team history.
The Raiders have scored 146 points, fewest in the AFC and only one better than Tampa Bay, which is last in the NFL.
Even though the offense is struggling, the defensive players are refusing to point fingers.
“The defense is going to set the tone for the rest of the team and how we’re going to be for the next several years,” safety Stuart Schweigert said. “You need a start somewhere, and we’ve started on the defensive side of the ball. Now it just takes a couple guys here on offense to step up or to get a couple of free agents to come in or something. Then, you see what happens.”
Despite being tied with Detroit for the worst record in the NFL, Oakland ranks third in the league in total defense and set a franchise record by holding Houston to minus-5 yards passing in a 23-14 loss Sunday.
“The thing is, we just always look at it as, we still have a lot to play for,” Schweigert said. “Even though we’re not making the playoffs and all that stuff, we want to finish in the top three in overall defense and we want to finish number one in pass defense. Right now we’re doing that, so we want to continue doing that for the next four weeks.”
Oakland has lost nine straight road games and 27 of its last 31 away from home.
This is the Raiders’ first visit to Cincinnati since a 20-17 victory on Nov. 5, 1995. Oakland beat Cincinnati 23-20 at home on Sebastian Janikowski’s winning 39-yard field goal in 2003, the teams’ only meeting this decade.
The Raiders lead the series with the Bengals 17-7.