CINCINNATI (AP) — The Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons have both been surprising this season — for different reasons.
The Bengals — last year’s AFC champions — dropped their first two games and had to come from behind again to beat New Orleans last week to get to 3-3.
The Falcons, despite low preseason expectations, improved to 3-3 with a win over the San Francisco 49ers and share the NFC South lead with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One of the teams will move above .500 for the first time this season when they meet Sunday in Cincinnati.
The Bengals have played from behind almost constantly, as was the case last week then they scored 10 points in the last 3:42 to rally past the Saints 30-26.
The win, coupled with Baltimore’s 24-20 loss to the New York Giants, moved the Bengals into a tie for first place in the AFC North.
“We can’t afford to kind of do what we’ve done, get down 10 points and try fight our way back,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said Wednesday. “That’s not the best way to play football. We have to be more efficient early in the game.”
Marcus Mariota threw two touchdown passes — while throwing just 14 times in the game — and ran for another score as the Falcons triumphed against the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 who barely played the last 2 1/2 years before getting a chance to take over for Matt Ryan in Atlanta, completed his first 13 passes, finally throwing his lone incompletion on his final attempt of the day.
Confidence is growing for both teams.
“I think week-to-week it’s kind of gotten better,” Mariota said. “For not playing for a couple of years, it’s kind of getting back into the rhythm of things, and I appreciate (coach Arthur Smith) and those guys for helping me get through that. But now I feel great in this offense. We do a lot of different things depending on who we are playing this week — maybe we might throw it, or we might run it. I think we have a lot of versatility that allows us to create advantages.”
With Cordarrelle Patterson on injured reserve, the Falcons’ committee approach to the running game is working. Caleb Hunley and rookie Tyler Allgeier combined for 110 yards — with Mariota chipping another 50 on six carries — against the 49ers. Atlanta ran the ball a season-high 40 times.
That could pose problems for a Bengals defense struggling to stop the run. The Saints rushed for 228 yards against a unit that’s missing injured nose tackle D.J. Reader.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow thinks his team is entering a critical stretch — games against Atlanta, Cleveland and Carolina before a bye week.
“Every game feels like a do-or-die in the NFL, but this three-game stretch, I think, will determine how our season goes,” Burrow said.
“When you’re sitting on your couch (during the bye) thinking about how your season has gone so far, 6-3 sounds a lot better,” he said.
WHERE ARE THE RECEIVERS?
Production by Atlanta’s receivers has been underwhelming. Falcons wideouts were targeted eight times last week. Olamide Zaccheaus finished with four catches for 58 yards, while first-round pick Drake London caught three for 40 yards.
AIRING IT OUT
By contrast, the Bengals are relying on Burrow’s arm as their running game continues to struggle. Ja’Marr Chase, last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, seems to be recapturing his form. He had seven catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns last week.
The Falcons rank 27th in the league in total defense and are 31st against the pass. They are closer to the middle in scoring defense, ranking 19th with 22.7 points allowed per game.
Smith says it’s better to have good situational defense than to flash impressive statistics. He said proof came last week when the Falcons beat the 49ers despite being outgained 346 yards to 289.
Atlanta’s defense must replace another defensive starter as cornerback Casey Hayward was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury this week. Isaiah Oliver, who had an interception last week after missing the first five games while recovering from knee surgery, and Darren Hall likely will play more prominent roles against the Bengals.
MORE INJURY UPDATES
Logan Wilson (shoulder), the Bengals’ best linebacker, is day to day, Taylor said. LB Joe Bachie was cleared to resume practicing. The third-year player has been on the shelf with a knee injury since Aug. 30.