CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are alive in what's become a muddled AFC playoff race.
Yes, the Bengals who began the season 0-3.
The Bengals who fired their offensive coordinator after two games and have struggled to protect Andy Dalton and establish a running game behind a patchwork offensive line.
The Bengals who are among the worst in the NFL in opponent's third-down conversion.
Those Bengals find themselves one game out of the second AFC wild-card spot.
"We've got to keep playing," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "I showed them that a year ago, we were in a situation where someone was going to get hot and break out of things. Last year it was Green Bay. They ran the table and this year it's going to be somebody else."
Cincinnati's 20-17 win on Sunday at Denver wasn't a thing of beauty. Far from it. But, the Bengals managed to burn the Broncos' third-ranked defense with a pair of long touchdown passes from Dalton to A.J. Green and Alex Erickson. The Bengals' defense then held on, helping them overcome an error-laden first quarter.
Of course, the fact the Bengals (4-6) are in this position is as much a testament to a largely average AFC as anything else. But, with three straight home games coming up against the winless Browns, Steelers, and Bears, anything is possible.
"Marvin has said that there is a team that is in the position that we're in right now that gets hot every year," said Dalton. "We're doing everything we can to make it us."
Dalton has made the best of his situation. His offensive line has struggled for most of the season and there's been no running game to speak of. Add to that, tight end Tyler Eifert's season-ending injury, and the Bengals quarterback deserves credit for managing to pass for more than 2,100 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions for a 90.7 rating despite being sacked 27 times in 10 games.
The offensive line lost a key component in tackle Jake Fisher for the season due to a heart condition, but that unit didn't play horribly on Sunday.
"We have to clean some things up in the running game," Lewis said. "We ought to have more opportunities. We've got to keep doing it together all the time. We've all got work to do."
The schedule isn't exactly favorable down the stretch with games against the Vikings, Steelers, and Lions among the final six. But, there also are matchups with the Browns, Bears, and Ravens left, and four of the Bengals' final six games are at home.
"There are a lot of teams in the situation we were in starting today and teams are going to get hot and get going," Lewis said. "We play some of them and they play each other. So, we have an opportunity if we just handle our business."
--Nose tackle Andrew Billings has earned more snaps and now he's going to get them after Pat Sims was waived. Billings, a fourth-round pick who missed his rookie season due to a knee injury, has eight tackles this season. He had a tackle and a quarterback hit in Sunday's win at Denver.
"Andrew's played increasingly better," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "He's done a good job being physical. He's been disruptive. He's still trying to put it all together, but he keeps making positive plays."
NOTES: WR Alex Erickson caught a 29-yard touchdown on Sunday, one of two catches he had for 42 yards. Both receptions were on third down. "The touchdown, but two third-down conversions," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "Each opportunity that Alex gets, he does a nice job." Erickson has nine catches for 142 yards this season while excelling on special teams. ... RB Joe Mixon rushed for 49 yards on Sunday on 20 attempts, an average of 2.5 yards for a Bengals running game that has struggled throughout the season. "As a runner, you can't be frustrated," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "You can't let the last play, positively, negatively affect the next one. You have to make the most of it. They can't have a notion in their mind where the ball is going to fit."
REPORT CARD VS. BRONCOS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B - Andy Dalton won't display these game stats on his mantle, but the Bengals QB had a solid day against a decent Broncos defense. Dalton passed for only 154 yards, but had three touchdowns including deep balls to A.J. Green and Alex Erickson. Dalton was sacked twice, but handled the Broncos' pressure well and did not throw an interception.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: D - The Bengals' rushing attack again was barely noticeable in Sunday's game, accounting for just one of the team's 12 first downs. Cincinnati averaged 1.9 yards per carry with Joe Mixon leading the way with 49 yards. Mixon had the longest run of the day, gaining eight yards. The second longest run? A designed eight-yard zone read by quarterback Andy Dalton.
--PASS DEFENSE: B - The timing was off for Brock Osweiler and the Broncos' passing game throughout Sunday's game. That can partially be attributed to the Bengals' pass rush that produced three sacks and made the pocket uncomfortable for Osweiler all day. Osweiler was 23 of 42 for 254 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
--RUSH DEFENSE: C - Denver rushed for 112 yards and averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Not eye-popping numbers, and the Broncos got five of their 15 first downs on the ground. The Bengals didn't tackle great at the point of attack and quarterback Brock Osweiler had 24 yards on four carries including one 12-yard run.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - This unit had an adventurous day. Kevin Huber had a punt blocked for the first time this season. Randy Bullock missed another extra point and a field goal. Bullock is now 8 of 10 on field goals and 18 of 20 on extra points after edging out Jake Elliott in a training-camp long competition.
--COACHING: B - Head coach Marvin Lewis called a couple of key timeouts on Sunday. One at the end of the first half just before Broncos kicker Randy McManus made a field goal that would have cut the Bengals' lead to 13-10, in a game they won 20-17. McManus' next attempt was blocked by KeiVarae Russell. Then, in the fourth quarter, Lewis got a timeout just before the expiration of the play clock. After the stoppage, Andy Dalton fired a laser to A.J. Green for the game-deciding touchdown. Somehow, the Bengals are still in the AFC playoff hunt.