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What matters: The Bengals injected hope, life and optimism back into their season by snapping a four-game skid and beating the New York Giants, 31-13, last week at home. With the dominant win, a feeling exists that the team that opened the year with expectations of returning to the postseason could be hitting stride just in time. A favorable schedule with the Chiefs (1-8), Raiders (3-6) and Chargers (4-5) now stands in front of them with a prime opportunity to gain ground in the wild card with the Ben Roethlisberger injury and difficult Colts schedule ahead.

Who matters: LB Rey Maualuga. He's played much better in recent weeks than he did early in the season. Maualuga dropped 20 pounds to 245 over the last two months. After being exposed in the pass game early in the season, he claims to feel like a different player out there. He looks like one, as well. No longer picked on as often in pass coverage, he's begun to solidify a Bengals defense that hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer since Week 2 and has intercepted six passes in the last four weeks.

"I think 90 percent of why he wasn't doing things the way we wanted him to was fatigue (because of the weight)," linebackers coach Paul Guenther said. "You can't worry about if you're winded. You've got to get up off the ground, call the huddle, call the adjustments and play good. Now he's doing it."

The slimmer, trimmer Maualuga will be counted on, along with LB Vontaze Burfict, to track down speedy Jamaal Charles and Kansas City, who lead the AFC in rushing yards per game (149).

Key matchups: LT Andrew Whitworth vs. DE/LB Tamba Hali. Two of the best in the game will go head-to-head. Facing top pass rushers has been nothing new to Whitworth, who spent last week shutting out New York's Jason Pierre-Paul. Whitworth is tied for fourth in the NFL among tackles in fewest combinations of sacks-hits-hurries allowed this season, according to Profootballfocus.com. The same website ranks Hali among the top 10 outside linebackers rushing the passer in the league.

Last week, a clean pocket allowed QB Andy Dalton to throw a career-high four touchdown passes. Another week with a similar pocket could warrant similar results, though Whitworth says the Bengals' protection has been consistently good. "When the catches are made and the touchdowns are thrown, all of a sudden 'We protected him,'" Whitworth said. "Andy is one of the least hit quarterbacks in our league. There is no doubt about that."

Injuries of note: The only defensive starter not expected to play is safety Reggie Nelson (hamstring, doubtful). Last week without Nelson, Lewis moved Nate Clements and Chris Crocker into the starting safety positions. Clements came away with an interception. ... Slot WR Andrew Hawkins (knee) injured his knee in Friday's practice and was listed as questionable. If he can't go, expect Mohamed Sanu to see more snaps in the slot and Brandon Tate more snaps on the outside. Losing Hawkins would hurt, specifically on third down. He's the team's third-leading receiver with 394 yards this season.

Inside stuff: Last week, the Bengals' defensive line showed signs of returning to the dominant unit that fueled Cincinnati to become the league's seventh-ranked defense last year. More than any time this season, they brought back a rotation of linemen broken into 1A/1B that subbed in and out in waves. All parties involved saw it as a success and admitted feeling fresher late in the game as the line took Eli Manning down four times, a season high allowed by the Giants. Connections: Bengals DL Wallace Gilberry enjoyed his best seasons with the Chiefs. The fifth-year pro played in 54 games for Kansas City from 2008-11. He notched seven sacks in 2010 when the Chiefs won the AFC West.

Stat you should know: Nobody in the NFL had a higher percentage of passes intercepted than that Chiefs. Kansas City has thrown 15 interceptions in nine games. An inability to grab interceptions beleaguered the Bengals early in the season when they managed just one through the first five games. In the last four games, however, they've grabbed six.

Record watch: A.J. Green has now caught a touchdown pass in eight consecutive games. He needs two more games to tie the Bengals' franchise mark of 10 held by Carl Pickens.

Looking ahead: A loss and you can write an ugly obituary on the Bengals' season. But a win and the optimism spreads into momentum as Carson Palmer returns to Paul Brown Stadium with Cincinnati back at .500.

Follow Paul Dehner Jr. for Bengals updates on Twitter @CBSBengals.