CINCINNATI — Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick thought back a few weeks to when the defending AFC North champions were in a predicament. He decided that the Bengals are very lucky to be coming out of their bye week with a chance of winning the title again.
“The football gods have kind of given us a second chance at this thing, and we’ve just got to take full advantage of it,” Kirkpatrick said.
Six weeks into the season, the Bengals were 2-4 with a host of problems and a two-game gap behind first-place Pittsburgh. Cincinnati still has its issues at 3-4-1, but Ben Roethlisberger suffered a knee injury, the Steelers have lost three in a row, and the division is a toss-up.
The Bengals are a half-game behind Pittsburgh (4-4) and Baltimore (4-4) coming out of their bye. They play at the Giants on Monday night.
The AFC North has been the toughest division in the league over the last few years in terms of getting teams into the playoffs. In a down year, it’s the only division where nobody has a winning record. And that’s given Cincinnati a new life, although its many problems have to get fixed — and fast.
“We have to be next-to-perfect in the second half,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
The schedule gives them a chance. They host Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and play at Cleveland and Baltimore among their final eight games. They’re 1-1 in the division, with a loss at Pittsburgh and a home win over Cleveland.
They also have road games against the Giants (5-3) and Houston (5-3), and home games against Buffalo (4-5) and Philadelphia (4-4).
Changes are coming to a defense that has given up 400 yards in three of the last four games. The Bengals signed end Wallace Gilberry during their bye week, which will mean diminished time for someone else. Coordinator Paul Guenther has said more changes are in store at other spots, though he declined to elaborate.
Guenther was pleased with how the defense responded to his challenge, saying its first practice back from the bye was its best of the year.
“I can tell everybody got upbeat since they came back from the bye,” cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones said. “I think everybody knows the importance of what we’ve got going on here.”
Gilberry left the Bengals after last season and signed with Detroit, where he played in four games and suffered an abdominal injury. He was released with an injury settlement. Gilberry had a full practice on Thursday, and the Bengals plan to use him in passing situations even though he’ll have only a few practices.
“That’s a lot of pressure, but I’m built for it,” Gilberry said Thursday.
The defense hasn’t changed much from last season, so the Bengals think Gilberry will be able to fit in quickly against the Giants.
“I’m not going to say it’s a piece of cake because there’s still a lot of work to be done, and I haven’t played football in a month,” Gilberry said. “My body feels good. It’s different when you are coming into a place and they know you.”
NOTES: LB Rey Maualuga missed practice on Thursday with an injured leg. DT Domata Peko got a day off. … LB Vontaze Burfict (thigh), DE Michael Johnson (calf) and DT Pat Sims (ribs) were limited.