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Depth pays off in Bengals playoff pursuit

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CINCINNATI — When the Cincinnati Bengals opened training camp in July, there was a lot of talk about this being Marvin Lewis’ deepest roster in his 12 seasons as head coach.

Five months later, that assessment is being affirmed as the Bengals head into Week 17 in first place in the AFC North despite four starters and two special-teams suffering season-ending injuries along the way.

Monday night against Denver, that depth shined bright under the national spotlight as a pair of former backups led the way to a 37-28 victory that clinched the team’s fourth consecutive playoff berth.

Rookie running back Jeremy Hill, who spent the first half of the year as Giovani Bernard’s backup, gashed the league’s No. 1-ranked run defense for 147 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown run.

And cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who was taken 17th overall in 2012, made his first start of the season and fourth of his career for flu-stricken Terence Newman, and all he did was intercept Peyton Manning twice, return one for a touchdown and win AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“It was a feeling that I haven’t felt in a while,” said Kirkpatrick, who has not only struggled to crack the lineup in a secondary that features four other first-round corners, but had a hard time getting on the field at all.

“I’m just being patient and approaching the game like I’m a starter, still studying, still asking coaches questions,” Kirkpatrick said. “Because you never know when your number’s going to be called.”

Lewis joked that Kirkpatrick’s weekly award means the coach won’t have to listen to the brash youngster from Alabama keep asking him “Why’d you bring me here anyway.”

Further illustrating the mesh of quality and quantity the Bengals have on the roster is the way the defense has performed since losing Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict to a knee injury.

When Burfict underwent knee surgery Oct. 29, the Bengals were allowing 140.7 yards per game and owned the 29th-ranked run defense. Since then, in the last five games, the team has allowed only 92 yards per game. Against the Broncos, a team that had put up 164.8 rushing yards in its last four games, the Bengals were without another starter in Emmanuel Lamur. But rookie Marquis Flowers stepped in, made his first career start and Cincinnati held Denver to 85 rushing yards.

But the biggest test of depth could lie ahead if Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is unable to play in the season finale at Pittsburgh with the AFC North Division on the line.

The Bengals have been without Marvin Jones (foot) all year, and tight end Tyler Eifert (elbow) hasn’t played since the opener. And rookie James Wright has missed the last three games since setting career highs in catches and yards Nov. 30 at Tampa Bay.

So if Green, who suffered a bruised biceps Monday night, can’t play against the Steelers on Sunday, that’s a lot of production to replace, especially considering that he set a career high with 224 yards the last time the Bengals faced Pittsburgh on Dec. 7.

If the Bengals can pass yet another test of their depth, they will play host to a first-round playoff game.

–This is the 89th regular-season meeting between the Bengals and Steelers. Pittsburgh leads the series, 54-34 edge, including a 42-21 triumph three weeks ago in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh has won seven of the last nine meetings. The Steelers have beaten the Bengals three consecutive times on Sunday Night Football, including a 30-20 triumph last year when they raced out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead. Pittsburgh also has won the only postseason contest between the teams, a 31-17 triumph in 2005 on the way to winning Super Bowl XL.

–Four players, including starting quarterback Andy Dalton, missed practice with the flu Wednesday, and there could be more sitting out Thursday after the team practiced for two hours in a steady, cold rain.

In addition to Dalton, cornerback Terence Newman, safety Reggie Nelson and tight end Jermaine Gresham were out sick. Head coach Marvin Lewis, who was battling illness as well, said he wasn’t worried about Dalton missing Wednesday’s practice, but offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said he had concerns.

“It’s always a big deal when you don’t have your quarterback at practice,” he said. “Again, it’s also not good if the guy’s sick and can’t practice. So we’ll see where he’s at tomorrow and go from there.”


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