DAVIE, Fla. — The Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals are headed in opposite directions entering their nationally televised game Thursday night at Sun Life Stadium.
The Bengals (6-2) have won four in a row; the Dolphins (3-4) have lost four in a row.
Cincinnati is coming off a 49-9 rout of the New York Jets; the Dolphins are coming off a second-half collapse in a 27-17 loss to New England.
And while Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton is on fire, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill has been regressing.
“They’ve definitely stepped it up a notch,” Miami left guard Richie Incognito said of the Bengals. “They’re playing winning football and playing it well.”
If any position group on the Dolphins faces a major test this week, it’s Incognito’s offensive line. The Bengals’ front four — led by Geno Atkins, whose five sacks rank second in the NFL among interior linemen — is the strength of a unit that is tied for fifth in scoring defense.
The Bengals have only 22 sacks (tied for 12th) but present a huge challenge for a Miami line that has yielded a league-high 32.
“Their front four might be the best we’ve faced all year,” center Mike Pouncey said. “We’ve got to go out and play a complete football game.”
“They’re good, they’re fast, they’re physical,” Incognito added. “The whole defense plays pretty well.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Atkins, the son of ex-Dolphin Gene Atkins, has emerged as a team leader in his fourth season.
“He’s one of those guys who says very little and does a lot,” Lewis said. “That’s the key element to being successful. He’s always been a hard worker; that’s what drew us to him, his motor and his ability to rush the passer from inside.”
Complementing the Bengals’ defense is a passing game led by Dalton that is taking its play to another level of late.
Cincinnati ranks seventh overall in passing yards. A.J. Green leads the AFC with 734 receiving yards while second-year wideout Marvin Jones is coming off a four-TD game against the Jets. Toss in tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert and slot receiver Mohamed Sanu and it’s as complete a group as you’ll find.
“They’re in the top 10 in the league in every category, so they’re obviously doing something right,” safety Jimmy Wilson said. “We have to go out there and lock them down. Whoever the ball is being thrown to, you’ve got to take care of business.”
Gresham and Eifert, the Bengals’ first-round picks in 2010 and 2013, respectively, are both on pace to top 575 receiving yards and might be the NFL’s most formidable tight end tandem. That’s a position that has given Miami problems all year.
“We’re going to do some things to try to match up against them,” linebacker Philip Wheeler said. “They go to their tight ends a lot; we have to stay on them and limit their catches.”
The linchpin of all that success, of course, is Dalton, whose passer rating has climbed from 80.4 as a rookie in 2011 to 87.4 last year and 99.0 this season, sixth-best in the NFL.
Miami cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who got a good look at Dalton last year while with Cleveland, said he has seen marked improvement.
“He looks more decisive with the ball, more comfortable with what they’re doing,” Patterson said. “This is his third year with the same coordinator (Jay Gruden), so that’s only natural, being with that coordinator that length of time.”
Asked if Dalton is close to being considered a top-echelon quarterback, Wilson said, “His win percentage (25-15, .625) is showing that. We’ll probably see in a couple years. When you think of top quarterbacks, you think of the top five everybody knows. To break into that group, you’ve got to put in your work. But he’s on his way.”
The Bengals are atop the AFC North by 2 1/2 games, the most of any division leader. They have yet to win the division — or even a playoff game — in 11 years under Lewis, but he is confident that milestone is drawing within reach.
“This team has the experience from other times,” he said. “It’s got a strong core and foundation, and we’ve added some good young players who have gotten better each and every week, but the leadership keeps leading them on and keeps getting better, and that’s what’s key.”