CINCINNATI (AP) — Vontaze Burfict anticipated a pass over the middle and got there first, grabbing his second interception of the game.
The Bengals’ linebacker was making an impact again.
It’s been a while.
Burfict was back to being a dominating linebacker during Cincinnati’s 32-14 win over the Eagles on Sunday.
He had two of the Bengals’ three interceptions, a season-high 15 tackles, and four passes knocked down — his best all-around game since his famous playoff meltdown.
“It’s like a test,” Burfict said . “You practice during the week, and on Sundays you have to pass the test. That’s my competitiveness.”
His marks have been merely above-average for most of the season.
The volatile linebacker hadn’t picked off a pass since an 18-16 playoff loss to Pittsburgh, when his late interception appeared to seal a Cincinnati victory. Burfict was so caught up in the moment that he ran all the way to the tunnel with the ball.
But Jeremy Hill fumbled, and Burfict put the Steelers in range for the winning field goal by hitting Antonio Brown in the head after an incomplete pass, drawing a personal foul. The NFL suspended him for the first three games of this season because of that hit and others.
He has so far avoided an egregious play this season. He’s also been less of a factor since returning from the suspension, getting eight or fewer tackles in three of his first four games as he worked his way back into shape. He’s been back in form the past few games, helping Cincinnati’s defense find its form.
The Bengals (4-7-1) have held each of the past three opponents to 19 points or fewer, with Burfict making game-changing plays.
And he’s finally heeded his coaches’ admonitions to avoid the personal fouls that have cost Cincinnati field position and a playoff game.
“He’s (going) 100,000 miles per hour,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “You’ve got to slow him down some.”
Burfict’s first interception came on a short pass by Carson Wentz, ending Philadelphia’s opening drive in the second half. He had another interception on a pass over the middle in the fourth quarter and returned it 47 yards before Wentz and tight end Zach Ertz brought him down.
“That quarterback is fast,” Burfict said.
The defense’s improvement — with Burfict in the middle of everything — has come too late to make a difference in the Bengals’ season.
In order to win the division, they have to win their last four games, starting Sunday in Cleveland (0-12), and have both Pittsburgh (7-5) and Baltimore (7-5) collapse in December.
But the defense’s resurgence means that the Steelers and Ravens can expect a challenging game when they come to Paul Brown Stadium later this season.
Pittsburgh visits on Dec. 18 and Baltimore on Jan. 1 in the final regular-season game.
So long as Burfict keeps playing at the level he did on Sunday, the Bengals’ defense will be formidable.
“He thinks he’s the best at everything,” receiver Brandon LaFell said. “He thinks he’s the best running back, the best pass catcher. With these two INTs, I’m going to hear about this for the rest of the season. He backs it up with his play, though.”
Notes: The Bengals are tied for second in the NFL with 14 interceptions, one behind San Diego. Baltimore and Kansas City also have picked off 14 passes. … The club record for interceptions in a season is 34 in 1996, when Ashley Ambrose had eight. … The Bengals beat the Browns 31-17 at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 23. They didn’t win another game until Sunday.