October 29, 2014

Despite coming off a key AFC North win, the last four weeks haven't been easy on the Cincinnati Bengals.

The defense in particular has been exposed, but that could change Sunday with the turnover-happy Jacksonville Jaguars coming to Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals (4-2-1) established themselves atop the North with last Sunday's 27-24 home win over Baltimore, their first victory since Sept. 21. During the 1-2-1 stretch, they've allowed averages of 32.8 points and 434.0 total yards.

"We haven't had much sleep for a couple of weeks here," coach Marvin Lewis said.

Holding the Ravens to six points through 40 minutes and 294 yards for the game was certainly a positive step toward correcting that, but they'll have to continue to progress without Vontaze Burfict.

The Pro Bowl linebacker had surgery to clean out his left knee Wednesday and will miss at least the next two games. He left against the Ravens but later returned, and the injury wasn't thought to be serious.

The Jaguars (1-7) have also helped to balance defensive numbers for opposing teams, scoring an NFL-low 14.8 points per game with 306.6 yards of offense, which ranks ahead of only Oakland and Tampa Bay.

Giving the ball away has had plenty to do with it as Jacksonville's 18 turnovers are tied with the New York Jets for the most in the league. Its minus-10 differential ranks 31st while Cincinnati's plus-5 is tied for sixth.

"We have to come back and truly attack these things because we can't continue in this fashion," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said.

Blake Bortles taking over at quarterback has only worsened the problem. The rookie has thrown a league-high 12 interceptions in just 5 1/2 games, four of which have been returned for touchdowns. He had two picks and lost a fumble in last Sunday's 27-13 home loss to Miami.

"I'm not going to say I'm mad at myself 'cause that's not really going to help anything," Bortles said. "Nobody cares, and it's not going to help me do anything. You've just got to learn from it. You've got to go figure it out, start watching film and find out what you can do to try to be better."

The offense has had a boost from Denard Robinson's emergence. The second-year speedster has posted consecutive 100-yard rushing games, becoming the first Jacksonville player to do so since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011.

"It's nice to see the running game getting better," guard Brandon Linder said. "He's a talented athlete and a great team player. He brings it on every play and is very confident in the way he runs. That's Denard. He makes things happen."

The Bengals might not have the same high praise for their running game at the moment with 143 yards on 46 attempts in the last two games for a 3.1 average. The dynamic Giovani Bernard has been limited to 62 yards on 23 carries in that time.

The Cincinnati offense has also had to deal with A.J. Green's three-game absence due to an injured big right toe. With the star receiver sidelined, Mohamed Sanu has filled the lead role with 18 catches for 299 yards on 32 targets.

"Mo's been playing great," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "I have a lot of confidence in him, and he has a lot of confidence in himself that he's going to make plays."

Dalton, though, enters Sunday looking to avoid going three straight games without a touchdown pass for the first time in his career.

Whether he has the luxury of throwing to both Sanu and Green against Jacksonville remains to be seen. Green has resumed running, but his status remains dependent on whether he can handle an increased workload in practice this week.

"Now it's going to be that they're going to have to play us straight-up," Sanu said. "They can't double-cover any one of us. They're going to have to play man-to-man. That's what we want."

The Cincinnati receivers won't have to contend with starting Jaguars cornerback Alan Ball after the team placed him on injured reserve with a biceps injury.

It's the latest blow for a banged-up defense that is already without starting linebacker Paul Posluszny for the season with a torn chest muscle while defensive end Andre Branch remains out with a groin injury.

Despite certain struggles, Cincinnati's home mystique has remained with the win over the Ravens extending its regular-season home unbeaten run to 12-0-1. That's the best streak in franchise history and currently second-best in the league to New England's 13 consecutive home wins.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, have lost five straight road games - by an average of 17.8 points - and 25 of 30.

The Bengals have won the last three meetings, though Jacksonville holds an 11-8 advantage in the all-time series.

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