Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) runs against Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor (24) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014 in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy
December 10, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) Cornerback Leon Hall notices something different about receiver A.J. Green during practice these days. He's more animated. He's not holding anything back.

All good signs for a Bengals team that needs him to be a difference-maker down the stretch.

Green had 11 catches for a career-high 224 yards during a 42-21 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday that left the Bengals (8-4-1) with no margin for error. Cincinnati is tottering atop the AFC North, a half-game ahead of Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

One of the most encouraging signs for the last three games is how Green is running and cutting at full-speed, catching just about everything thrown his way during games.

''He's been something special in practice, too,'' Hall said on Wednesday. ''It's been a pretty good show the last few weeks in practice. Even if the ball is not completed, you can see in his stride that he is feeling great.''

In a sense, he's making up for lost time.

The fourth-year receiver was having his least-productive season until the last few weeks. He hurt his right big toe during the season opener, missed three full games and most of another, and was limited in his first few games back because the toe wasn't fully healed.

He had a career-high 12 catches - most in the AFC this season - for 121 yards during a win at Houston on Nov. 16, looking for the first time like he was fully recovered. On Sunday, an injury-slowed Ike Taylor couldn't keep up.

''Nothing special,'' Green said. ''I was just making plays when I was due to receive the ball.''

Despite nearly a third of the season, Green ranks 16th in the NFL with 910 yards on 56 catches. His 224 yards against the Steelers were the fourth-most by an NFL receiver this season.

The best test is next Sunday in Cleveland. The Browns (7-6) need a win to stay in the division race. And Cleveland has done the best job of stopping Green throughout his career.

With Joe Haden guarding him most of the time, Green has managed only five catches for 30 yards in the last two games combined, both losses. Most recently, the Browns limited him to three catches for 23 yards during a 24-3 win at Paul Brown Stadium in a Thursday night game on Nov. 6.

The Browns always make it a point to shut down Green.

''Joe is obviously a terrific football player,'' offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said on Wednesday. ''The players around him - talking about Joe - understand where A.J. is. We've got to make sure that he comes out there and we give him opportunities to do what he does.''

Andy Dalton completed only three passes, threw three interceptions and had a passer rating of 2.0 during the loss to Cleveland. He's determined to make Green a much bigger part of the rematch.

''That's the type of player he is, so you've got to keep giving him these opportunities to make these big plays,'' Dalton said.

Notes: Coach Marvin Lewis said linebacker Vontaze Burfict is trying to decide whether to have more surgery on his left knee. He hasn't played since he had the knee cleaned out on Oct. 29. The Bengals had hoped he could play again this season, but the knee hasn't recovered. He went on injured reserve Tuesday. ... Cornerbacks Adam ''Pacman'' Jones (chest) and Dre Kirkpatrick (ribs) missed practice on Wednesday. Cornerback Terence Newman (ankle) was limited.

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