Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones intercepts a pass intended for Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders.
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CINCINNATI — Tackle Geno Atkins hasn't played the last six games. Cornerback Leon Hall has missed the last eight. Cornerback Terence Newman has been gone for the last two.
One of the NFL's top defenses has missed its biggest playmakers for most of the second half of the season and somehow managed to stay among the league's best heading into the playoffs. The Bengals (10-5) are AFC North champions in large part because of a defense that's adept at doing without.
Coordinator Mike Zimmer has done one of his best jobs of mixing, matching and tweaking. Cincinnati ranks No. 5 on defense heading into the final regular-season game against Baltimore on Sunday.
And that defense is the Bengals' main hope of going deep into the playoffs.
"That's what coach Zimmer has been preaching to us defensively, saying that when you look around the league at the top teams right now, our defense is probably going to be one of the best ones in the playoffs," tackle Domata Peko said Tuesday.
"So he just said, 'Hey, let's just keeping playing like we've been playing and our defense will carry us, so let's go.' So we have a lot of confidence in this room."
Cincinnati has the highest-ranked defense in the AFC. Only Arizona, Carolina, San Francisco and New Orleans rank better. The Bengals are on pace to finish with their highest ranking since they finished fourth in 2009, the last time they won the division.
The most remarkable part is how they've done it without so many mainstays. Atkins was All-Pro last season with a team-high 12½ sacks, the most by any NFL interior lineman. Hall and Newman are the starting cornerbacks — Newman could be back for the playoffs after recovering from a sprained knee.
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga missed three games with a sprained knee. Outside linebacker James Harrison missed the last game with a concussion. Their fill-ins have played so well that the defense hasn't missed those stars very much.
End Wallace Gilberry has started only two games but is tied for the team lead with 7½ sacks. Vincent Rey has filled in at middle and outside linebacker and had a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown in Sunday's 42-14 win over Minnesota.
"If you don't have a solid base in fundamentals of what you are doing, you become a hodgepodge of everything and you're good at nothing," Zimmer said. "We still try to use our strengths and attack them in different ways. I think everyone understands what we want them to do on every play."
Adam "Pacman" Jones has assumed the role of top cornerback and is having one of his finest seasons with a team-high three interceptions, including one that he returned for a 60-yard touchdown. Dre Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick who missed most of his rookie season because of injuries, has gotten a lot more time on the field. Safety Chris Crocker has moved into the role of nickel cornerback.
The Bengals could eliminate the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens by winning Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. They would move up to the No. 2 seed in the playoffs if the Patriots lose to the Bills in a later game, giving Cincinnati a first-round bye.
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