Maybe it’s the three come-from-behind victories in five games. Or the way they’ve piled up points despite some rather pedestrian individual performances.
Perhaps it’s the sudden ascension to the top of the AFC North.
Something is different about these Cincinnati Bengals, and Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert can’t quite put his finger on it.
“They have a little something about them,” Gilbert said. “They are not the same team as far as how they’ve been able to start off and how dominating they have been.”
It’s true, the Bengals are not the same team the Steelers played in recent seasons. The group the Steelers will encounter on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium is in first place and thriving as one of the NFL’s best teams.
For the first time since 2015, the Steelers — and not the Bengals — are doing the chasing in the AFC North hierarchy. At 2-2-1, the Steelers are one-and-a-half games behind the 4-1 Bengals and face a game they probably need to win if they hope to claim the division title for a third consecutive season.
“They are a hot football team,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “They have found ways to win close games, and that is what good teams do, and you have to respect that.”
The Bengals have lost six in a row in the series, counting a 2015 postseason defeat, with four coming at Paul Brown Stadium. They are coming off 6-9-1 and 7-9 seasons since they fell apart in the waning moments of that 18-16 wild-card playoff loss to the Steelers.
The pendulum has started to swing the other way in coach Marvin Lewis’ 16th season. It started in the opener on the road when the Bengals came back from a 23-10 deficit in the second half to defeat the Indianapolis Colts, 34-23. Cincinnati then jumped on divisional rival Baltimore for a pair of early 21-point leads before holding on to win another 34-23 decision.
After a loss to Carolina, the Bengals used as touchdown with 7 seconds left to stun Atlanta, 37-36, on the road. Then, the Bengals spotted the Miami Dolphins the first 17 points before scoring 24 in the fourth quarter for a 27-17 win Sunday.
And now the Bengals will try to defeat the Steelers for the first time since Nov. 1, 2015, when linebacker Vontaze Burfict ended Le’Veon Bell’s season with a tackle that resulted in a torn MCL for the Steelers running back.
The Steelers realize what is at stake.
“I have had more people hit me up with ‘Hey, can I get tickets for this game?’ than any other game because we understand what is going on,” guard Ramon Foster said. “Our division is tight right now. Everybody is vying for a spot as far as making it into the postseason. These games are crucial right now.”
The Bengals are averaging 30.6 points, which puts them in company with other division leaders New Orleans (36.0), Kansas City (35.0) and Los Angeles Rams (34.6) as the only offenses averaging more than 30.
They have achieved such productivity despite a passing game that ranks in the middle of the pack and a running game that is in the bottom half. Andy Dalton has 1,445 yards passing with 12 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Top target A.J. Green is No. 17 with 409 yards and five touchdowns. Running back Joe Mixon has 272 yards rushing despite missing two games with injury.
Green continues to draw the most interest from Tomlin, although former Clairton and Pitt player Tyler Boyd has emerged as a viable No. 2 option with 393 yards and two scores.
“They do a nice job of finding balance, taking care of the football,” Tomlin said.
On defense, the Bengals can boast getting six sacks from Geno Atkins (tied for the NFL lead) and four from Carlos Dunlap. But the Bengals also have allowed opponents to convert more third downs than all but one other team, and they have struggled to keep teams from scoring in the red zone.
Still, the Bengals have found a way to win more games this year than everyone but the Chiefs and the Rams, which has gotten the Steelers’ attention.
“A lot of things for us to get charged up about,” Tomlin said.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.