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After holding off the Ravens, the Bengals just may be the team to beat in the AFC North

Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green gave the Ravens fits Thursday night with five catches for 69 yards and three touchdowns as Cincinnati improved to 2-0 with a 34-23 victory. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Cincinnati Bengals spent the previous two seasons finding the wrong way to avoid losing in the first round of the playoffs. They missed them entirely.

But two games into the new season, the Bengals are serving notice that things could be different. They are making an early-season case that they, and not the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens, could be the team to beat in the AFC North.

The Bengals sprinted to an early lead Thursday night at home against the Ravens and held on to win, 34-23. They’re off to a 2-0 start, while the Ravens and Steelers are showing some vulnerabilities.

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Some were surprised when the Bengals stuck with Marvin Lewis as their coach after consecutive losing seasons, with records of 7-9 last year and 6-9-1 in 2016. The team is yet to win a playoff game with Lewis as its coach and Andy Dalton at quarterback.

But those who wanted to see Lewis gone seem to forget how bad things were before he arrived in 2003. Those Bengals had gone a dozen seasons without so much as reaching the playoffs. The Bengals of Lewis and Dalton might not have a postseason victory. But in order to lose in the opening round of the playoffs in five straight seasons between 2011 and 2015, the Bengals had to reach the playoffs in five straight seasons.

They have stayed the course with Lewis and Dalton, and they could be formidable once more. Dalton was sharp Thursday night, with four touchdown passes and no interceptions. He connected with wide receiver A.J. Green for three touchdowns as the Bengals raced to a 21-0 lead.

The Ravens climbed back to within 28-23 in the fourth quarter. But they failed on a two-point conversion that would have gotten them to within three points. The Bengals followed with a pair of field goals, sandwiched around a Ravens’ fumble forced by Cincinnati safety Shawn Williams.

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“The sky is the limit for this team,” Green said in a postgame appearance alongside Dalton on NFL Network.

Dalton and Green are the mainstays of the offense. But it remains versatile with the running threat of second-year tailback Joe Mixon. The Cincinnati defense is playing for now without linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who’s serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. But the Bengals had a decent night on defense Thursday, sacking Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco four times and intercepting him twice.

“I definitely feel like we have the potential to be really good,” Dalton said.

The Bengals will be tested by playing their next two games on the road at Carolina and Atlanta. Then they must demonstrate, beginning next month, that they can challenge the Steelers, who have beaten the Bengals six consecutive times and in nine of their last 10 meetings.

The Steelers have won three of the last four AFC North titles. But they opened the season Sunday with an embarrassing tie at Cleveland, and they continue to deal with the absence of tailback Le’Veon Bell as he remains in a contract impasse with the team after being franchise-tagged.

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The Ravens are in a win-or-else season for Flacco and Coach John Harbaugh after three straight non-playoff years. All seemed well when the Ravens demolished the Buffalo Bills, 47-3, Sunday in Baltimore to begin the season. But they couldn’t keep things going on the road Thursday. Flacco had some shaky moments. The defense had no answers for Dalton and Green. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore’s three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, was taken from the field on a cart with a knee injury later diagnosed as a bone bruise.

Much remains to play out. The Bengals’ season ultimately will be judged not on whether they reach the playoffs, but on whether they can win in the playoffs. But for now, it’s enough that the Bengals are signaling that they are contenders again. The Ravens and Steelers are in chase mode, with the Bengals leading the chase.

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