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Bengals' big difference? 'They're playing like they expect to win'

Andy Dalton sat at his temporary stall in the Pittsburgh visitors' locker room, slumped, hands on his knees. A.J. Green looked just as spent, and fellow receiver Marvin Jones, well, he was staring straight off into space.

This is what 7-0 looks like?

"You know, it's cool," Jones said, offering a half-smile. "But we have a game Thursday."

These are the 2015 Cincinnati Bengals. They're rolling through their schedule, they've all but locked up the AFC North after Sunday's comeback win over the Steelers and even head coach Marvin Lewis acknowledged it all as "new territory." And yet, the Bengals are acting very matter-of-fact. Even -- no, especially -- as they get better.

Take Sunday: Dalton threw two interceptions in the span of three fourth-quarter minutes -- and then, three minutes after that, threw the touchdown to Green that gave the Bengals their first lead of the afternoon. It was as up and down as a team can get, and there was Green afterward, shaking his head no, saying, "That's just football."

"There is no emotional rollercoaster," Jones said. "Our goal is to drive the train straight. Always."

Of all the undefeated teams in football -- the Panthers, Broncos, Patriots and Bengals -- it's Cincinnati which might be most unimpressed with itself. Sure, the Bengals have a commanding three-and-a-half-game lead in the division, and yes, just like the win over the Seahawks was a big check mark, so too was this one over the reigning division champ Steelers.

For the first time in midseason history, the Bengals have been flexed into a Sunday night slot (in Week 11). The Queen City is ripe with new and newly-invigorated fans; instead of worrying about the all-too-familiar local TV blackouts, the city this week is witnessing its convention center light up its Cincinnati icon sign in orange and white stripes.

Lewis couldn't help but have fun Monday when he was asked about that revived fan base, saying, "A lot of people emptying their closets lately, huh?" But when he laughed, it was more wry than giddy. Because if there's one thing he's preached this year, it's -- as he put it Sunday afternoon -- "one game at a time, one snap at a time."

Maybe this is what happens when a team gets booted in the first round of the playoffs four straight years.

Maybe this is what happens when a team's essential core has been together for years.

Maybe this is what happens when a team stays healthy, maybe this is about urgency to hold onto jobs, or maybe it's about money. As cornerback Adam Jones very frankly said, "A lot of guys are in their contract years."

Maybe. Or maybe it's just about being good. Really good. Good enough to know: We're good.

The Steelers' defense had the Bengals' high-flying offense -- and the man who came into the game with the NFL's highest passer rating -- looking awfully pedestrian. Drives were sputtering, the run game was going nowhere ... and then Dalton improvised a nifty little shovel to Gio Bernard, who jetted 23 yards deep into Steelers land. It was kind of like against the Seahawks, when Dalton audibled an empty backfield into a run, for himself, that ended five yards later in the end zone.

The Steelers' DeAngelo Williams explained those plays with one word: confidence.

"When a team is playing with that kind of confidence, players don't think. They just say, 'Let's go,' " Williams said. "If people tell you confidence doesn't translate into something, they're lying. They're playing like they expect to win."

Lewis used a catchphrase about "resiliency." Long-haired tackle Domata Peko pulled out "poised." But Bernard said it's more simple than even a cliché: "We just keep playing. Andy just keeps playing."

The Bengals now have a Thursday night date with the Browns in Paul Brown Stadium. It's a repeat of one they had in Cincinnati a year ago, too, and inglorious is what that one was for Cincy. Dalton threw three picks, while managing just 86 passing yards. Jeremy Hill fumbled. The defense gave up rushing touchdowns to three different backs. And it's hard to fathom that was just last season. Not because the Bengals are incapable of having a lousy night. But because this year's version seems more likely to keep playing, to play its way out of the ugliness.

It's what they did Sunday. And OK, Adam Jones did run off the field in Pittsburgh with a semi-shouted, "How about them Bengals?" Fellow corner Dre Kirkpatrick did stand on a stool for reporters postgame, happily explaining his positioning "because I'm on cloud nine."

But mostly, largely, the Bengals were mellow. They were cool. They wore the look of 7-0, driving on to, as Peko said, "we hope 8-0."

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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