The Cincinnati Bengals have rebounded nicely from an ugly season-opening defeat.
Backed by a potent offense and improving defense, the Bengals look for a fourth consecutive victory when they host the hard-luck Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
Coming off a 9-7 playoff season, Cincinnati (3-1) opened this year with an embarrassing 44-13 loss at Baltimore. However, that defeat might have lit a fire under the Bengals, who have averaged 33.0 points during a three-game winning streak that included consecutive road contests at Washington and Jacksonville.
"The second quarter (of the season) is going to be just as tough, if not tougher,'' defensive back Terence Newman said. "The third quarter is going to be tougher than the second, and the fourth is going to be the most difficult. As long as we can maintain and stay healthy I think we'll definitely be OK.''
Cincinnati thus far has been able to take advantage of a five-game stretch against teams starting a rookie or second-year quarterback. Though the Bengals allowed 102 points through the first three weeks, their defense improved from 29th to 19th (allowing 365.5 yards per game) after holding Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars' NFL-worst offense to 212 total yards and recording six sacks in last Sunday's 27-10 victory.
Cincinnati's unit made those strides despite playing without injured cornerbacks Leon Hall (hamstring), Nate Clements (calf), Jason Allen (thigh) and Dre Kirkpatrick (knee). Hall and Clements could be back against the Dolphins, while Kirkpatrick has returned to practice, though he's unlikely to be ready Sunday.
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is back in the mix after missing the first two games with a sprained knee. Dunlap, fellow end Michael Johnson and tackle Geno Atkins have combined for 11 of the Bengals' NFL-leading 17 sacks.
"(Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer) has been on us pretty hard because we haven't been playing up to the potential the guys on this team are able to play up to," Newman said. "He's been just pretty much down our throats and wanting us to hustle to the ball, finish plays, finish games."
Even with rookie Ryan Tannehill under center for Miami (1-3), the Bengals could face a stiff test against a Dolphins squad that ranks ninth in the league in total offense (397.0 yards per game) and averages 21.5 points.
In last Sunday's 24-21 overtime loss at Arizona, Tannehill threw for 431 yards to break Dan Marino's franchise rookie record by 99 yards. His only touchdown pass in that contest went for 80 yards to Brian Hartline, who set a club record with 253 receiving yards on 12 catches and leads the NFL with 455 yards through four weeks.
One week after losing 23-20 in overtime to the Jets, the Dolphins committed three turnovers in the final nine minutes of regulation and overtime at Arizona.
"That's just not a good recipe to win games in the National Football League or high school or Pop Warner,'' said Miami coach Joe Philbin, whose team has a minus-5 turnover margin. "It's disappointing. The turnover margin, for every statistical guru, is the No. 1 measurement in winning or losing games.''
While Tannehill has made strides despite throwing six interceptions and Reggie Bush has rushed for 369 yards to keep the Dolphins competitive offensively, Miami's defense - which gives up 297.8 passing yards per game (ranked 30th) - might have the biggest challenge trying to stop second-year Bengal stars A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.
Green caught nine passes for a career-high 183 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati's 38-31 win at Washington on Sept. 23, then followed with 117 yards and a score on six receptions in the rain at Jacksonville.
Dalton ranks fifth in the NFL with a 103.0 passer rating and leads the league in fourth-quarter rating at 151.7 with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I said it from Day 1, Andy is going to be one of the best ones,'' Green said. "Once he gets into rhythm, he's one of the best in the league. I'm just fortunate and blessed to have a quarterback like that.''
Cincinnati ranks eighth in the NFL in scoring at 28.0 points per contest.
"Just the knowledge of the offense is a lot better than last year and that's how it should be,'' said Dalton, who has thrown all eight of his TDs in the last three weeks. "We've got to keep getting better.''
These teams are meeting for the first time since Miami's 22-14 win at Cincinnati on Oct. 31, 2010.