CINCINNATI — Midway through October, the Cincinnati Bengals already have matched their win total from last season. They've won three in a row — their best such streak since 2009 — and they're headed into the bye week feeling they can be a contender.
No one expected this from such a young team.
A 27-17 victory over Indianapolis on Sunday took the Bengals to a place that no one expected. They've rallied to win games in front of small crowds that reflect the lack of interest in a team with so much recent baggage.
"We're going to get better," offensive guard Bobbie Williams said. "So it doesn't matter what people think because we know what we can do."
So far, they've proven they can win games with a combination of steady defense and just enough big plays out of a very young offense.
The defense was ranked No. 1 in yards allowed for two consecutive weeks, slipping to No. 3 after the game against the Colts. The Bengals ranked seventh overall in points allowed and haven't given up more than 24 in any game.
The offense has been getting a little better each week with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie receiver A.J. Green leading the way. Green leads the team with 29 catches for 453 yards and four touchdowns. Dalton has thrown seven touchdowns and five interceptions, improving his passer rating to 84.3, which is roughly the league average.
"We're getting better every week, and that's what we have to do," Dalton said. "We have to keep improving and continue fixing the little things. We'll see what happens from there."
The overriding questions coming out of their bye week will be: Can they keep this up as the schedule gets tougher? And can they get back to filling their stadium?
The Bengals got a break with the way their schedule is set up. Only one of the teams they play in the first half is coming off a winning season — the Colts, who are 0-6 without quarterback Peyton Manning. They've played only one AFC North opponent, beating Cleveland with a quick-snap touchdown in the season opener.
The other two wins came against Buffalo (4-2) and Carolina (1-5). They've lost to Denver (1-4) and San Francisco (5-1). Coming out of the bye, they play at Seattle (2-3).
"This is really not unexpected," safety Chris Crocker said. "We thought we could get a really good start on the season, and we were going to play well if we played together as a team. That's what we've done."
In November, they start a six-game stretch that gives them a better idea of where they stand. They play at Tennessee, home against Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, home against Cleveland, at Pittsburgh and home against Houston.
After practice on Monday, second-string quarterback Bruce Gradkowski tweeted: "Nice to be 4-2 time to take a step back relax and get ready for the stretch push for a division title!"
Maualuga's ankle in cast
Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga wore a pink cast on his left foot Monday, an indication his ankle injury will sideline him for more than only one game.
The team said Maualuga sprained his left ankle during practice last Thursday. He wasn't active for a 27-17 win over the Colts on Sunday. The Bengals are 4-2 heading into their bye this week, with their defense ranked among the league's best.
Maualuga declined to talk to reporters as he passed through the locker room on Monday, supporting himself with two metal crutches. Coach Marvin Lewis hasn't given any indication how long he'll be out.
The Bengals could get cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones back after the bye. Jones said on Monday that he's been cleared to return from off-season neck surgery.