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CINCINNATI — Defensive lineman Domata Peko didn’t realize the Cincinnati Bengals were at the top of the AFC until some of his teammates pointed it out.
Yes, the Bengals. At the season’s midpoint, they’re tied with Baltimore for the conference’s best record at 6-2. That’s a better winning percentage than the Patriots, the Jets, the Chargers and the rival Steelers.
It’s a little hard to comprehend.
“That’s crazy,” Peko said Monday. “They just told me that in the training room. But we’re not real big on looking at stats or things like that.”
So far, they’re big on one thing — surprising people.
A team that many picked to finish near the bottom of the league has put itself in position for a playoff run. The Bengals’ 24-17 win at Tennessee on Sunday left them with a five-game winning streak for the first time since 1988, when they went to the Super Bowl.
Nobody’s talking about this team and Super Bowl. The playoffs? That’s no longer such a whimsical thought.
“Our goals are the same — trying to win the AFC North and nothing less than the playoffs,” Peko said. “There’s nothing else we want to do but make the playoffs and take it from there.”
The next five weeks will tell.
The Bengals opened the season with a win in Cleveland, pulling off a quick-snap touchdown against a Browns defense that was loitering instead of lining up. That’s their only division game so far.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh (6-3) will bring thousands of fans to Paul Brown Stadium for the start of Cincinnati’s telling stretch. The Bengals then go to Baltimore (6-2), play the Browns (3-5) again at home, and go to Pittsburgh. That’s followed by a home game against Houston (6-3).
They haven’t played anything like that so far. Their first eight opponents have a 26-39 record.
“You have done a great job of setting yourself in a good position, but that good position doesn’t mean anything if you don’t capitalize on it,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said Monday. “So, it is great. It’s more than people ever expected at this point even if we didn’t do anything good from here. … “
A win on Sunday would put recent history on their side. The Bengals also started 7-2 in 2005 and 2009. Both times, they won the division and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Those are their only two winning seasons in 20 years.
Expectations were so low that they didn’t come close to filling 65,500-seat Paul Brown Stadium for any of their three regular-season home games. A win over Buffalo on Oct. 2 drew 41,142 fans, the smallest crowd for a regular-season game in the stadium’s 12-year history.
Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh is sold out, partly because of thousands of Steelers fans making the five-hour drive. The Pittsburgh game at Paul Brown also sold out last season. Cincinnati had failed to sell out its last seven since then.
“I remember at the beginning of the season, we weren’t supposed to win any games, were we?” Peko said, referring to some predictions they’d go 0-16. “So, surprise!”