CINCINNATI — The Bengals have never taken a defense ranked this highly into the playoffs.
Cincinnati is No. 3 in the NFL in yards allowed heading into its home game today against San Diego, a team that the Bengals throttled only a month ago.
And the defense does a lot more than just dig in. It can score, too.
The defense has been a key component in Cincinnati’s 8-0 record at home. The AFC North champions (11-5) have gotten six interception or fumble returns for touchdowns at Paul Brown Stadium this season.
“We’re not really a gambling defense,” coordinator Mike Zimmer said. “We’re not going to give up big plays trying to get interceptions and run it back for touchdowns.
“Sometimes it’s luck.”
The defense has been Andy Dalton’s best friend all season long, a big reason Cincinnati has piled up 49, 41, 42, 42 and 34 points in the last five homes games.
The defense has repeatedly erased the offense’s turnovers by holding opponents to a field goal or less. During a 34-17 win over Baltimore last Sunday, the Ravens managed only three field goals off Dalton’s first three interceptions.
The defense’s all-around impressive play has given it a deep confidence heading into the playoffs.
“We all kind of have a little chip on our shoulder today,” second-year linebacker Vontaze Burfict said.
The Bengals finished with that highly ranked defense in a season when it faced Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. The Bengals won 17-10 in San Diego on Dec. 1 by forcing two fumbles and an interception.
Rivers was 23 of 37 for 252 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“We didn’t play our best, but they certainly had a lot to do with that,” Rivers said. “They’re a heck of a team.”
Cincinnati also has gotten through a season without some of its top playmakers on defense, an indication of its depth and Zimmer’s creativity.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who led all interior NFL linemen in sacks last season, tore a knee ligament in the ninth game. Top cornerback Leon Hall tore an Achilles tendon, and starting cornerback Terence Newman has missed the last three games with a sprained knee.
Burfict has emerged as a Pro Bowl linebacker in his second season, leading the team in tackles. He also forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown against the Browns.
Burfict ended up undrafted in 2012 because of his repeated personal fouls at Arizona State and his poor showing at the combine. The Bengals had been in touch with him before the draft and told him he’d have a spot in Cincinnati if nobody picked him.
“Literally, the very first practice that we had in rookie camp, I told (owner) Mike Brown, ‘He’s special and I don’t mean to overstate this, but he’s special,’” coach Marvin Lewis said. “He reminds me of another guy that I’ve coached and he’s done everything he can do.”
Lewis was referring to former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who led Baltimore to a pair of Super Bowl championships, including one last season before retiring. Lewis thinks that Burfict can have a similar career.
“You feel good for Vontaze for that, but we’re not done,” Lewis said. “His mark will be left by winning championships. That’s what Ray has done.”
NOTE: With temperatures in the teens, the Bengals moved practice to the University of Cincinnati’s covered practice field.