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.
After gaining a much-needed boost of confidence, the Cincinnati Bengals have a prime chance to lift their playoff hopes.
The Bengals would appear to have a favorable schedule over the next few weeks, beginning with Sunday's visit to the beleaguered Kansas City Chiefs.
Just when it seemed that it might continue its historic trend of inconsistency, Cincinnati pulled off a decisive 31-13 win over defending champion New York last Sunday. Andy Daltonthrew a career-high four touchdowns while helping his team end a four-game losing streak, and the Bengals' defense forced four turnovers and sacked Eli Manning four times.
"That was huge for us," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We really needed that win. It was important because they're world champions and when you can compete against a team like that, it shows us we can compete against anybody."
Cincinnati has made back-to-back playoff appearances only once in franchise history (1981-82) and will get its chance to make a push toward achieving that goal over the ensuing weeks. The Bengals (4-5) will play their next five games against teams that are currently below .500.
Wide receiver A.J. Green, though, said Cincinnati is not taking this stretch lightly, and he pointed to a 34-24 loss at last-place Cleveland on Oct. 14 as evidence why the Bengals shouldn't.
"We can't look past anyone," Green told the team's official website. "This is the last part of the season and I feel like the game we had last Sunday gave us momentum. The best momentum to have is in the second half of the season."
Cincinnati would appear to have its chance for some momentum against the Chiefs (1-8), who have dropped six in a row. Kansas City has been outscored 157-78 during the losing streak, its longest in a single season since a seven-game slide Oct. 5-Nov. 23, 2008.
The Chiefs have produced 16 points or fewer in each of their last five games but nearly won in Pittsburgh on Monday night. Ryan Succop made a 46-yard field goal as time expired in regulation to tie it at 13-all, but Matt Cassel was intercepted on the second play in overtime, setting up the Steelers' game-winning kick.
"We're disappointed about the final result, but I really think our team played a much more competitive game overall than we have been playing," coach Romeo Crennel said. "We had some opportunities to win the game, but there are things we have to polish up and get correct so we can win the game."
With Brady Quinn not yet cleared to return from a concussion, the Chiefs will start Cassel again Sunday.
"Brady does feel better. I'm glad he's feeling better. But he hasn't been cleared to play yet," Crennel said. "I can't take the chance on practicing the guy and not having him ready."
Cassel missed one game earlier this season with a concussion of his own and had to fill in for Quinn when he exited a 26-16 loss to Oakland on Oct. 28.
Cassel has posted his lowest quarterback rating (66.6) in five seasons as a starter, and he has 12 interceptions to only six touchdowns in his eight games.
He was intercepted twice in his most recent matchup with Cincinnati on Dec. 27, 2009, and one of those sealed a 17-10 win for the Bengals. Kansas City's Jamaal Charles had 102 yards on 24 carries in that game and enters this one after reaching the 100-yard mark for the third time this season Monday.
Charles, who has 734 yards, gained 233 in the Chiefs' lone win Sept. 23 at New Orleans.
"He's a guy that has the ability to make people miss," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said.
The Bengals, who have won consecutive games in the series, are making their first trip to Kansas City since a 27-20 defeat Oct. 14, 2007.
Cincinnati, which has lost in six of its last eight visits, is hoping to have safety Reggie Nelson (hamstring) and rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones (knee) available for this matchup.
"Reggie and Marvin are getting pretty close," Lewis said. "They've worked extremely hard."
The Chiefs' receiving corps might be thin for this game. Jon Baldwin is getting tested for a concussion, and Dwayne Bowe -- tops on the team with 49 receptions, 626 yards and three TDs -- is also expected to be limited in practice this week due to an ailing thigh.