These are not the same ole Cincinnati Bengals, who are relevant in December

It’s December. The Cincinnati Bengals are relevant. Sure, that sounds weird when considering that in recent years this is the time when the Bengals are scratched off the NFL’s playoff grid.

But look at them now. If the playoffs were today, Joe Burrow’s team (7-4) would be the top wild-card entrant in the ultra-competitive AFC.

Who Dey?

“I knew they’d be better this season, but I thought it might take a little bit longer,” Dave Lapham, the former Bengals lineman, told USA TODAY Sports. Lapham has intimately witnessed the twists, turns and frustrations of the franchise for many years as the team’s radio analyst.

“They may be starting to play their best football at the right time.”

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Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon helped the Bengals rout the Steelers, 41-10, last week.

Since a bye in Week 10, the Bengals outscored the Raiders and Steelers by a combined margin of 73-23 in scoring back-to-back blowouts. In clobbering the Steelers last weekend, they swept the season series and proved that the Week 3 win in Pittsburgh was no fluke. What a statement.

Then again, maybe the bigger statement came at Baltimore in Week 7 when they routed the Ravens.

No, the Bengals are no longer fit to be bullied by the AFC North heavyweights who have dominated their division for so long.

Still, to cement themselves as legitimate contenders, the Bengals need a few more “statement” wins down the stretch … which is what December football is all about.

We’ll see.

“It’s too early to tell,” Reggie Williams, the former Bengals linebacker, told USA TODAY Sports. Williams, who lives in Florida, was back in Cincinnati earlier this season for a celebration honoring the franchise’s greatest players and doesn’t miss any opportunities to watch his former team.

“This is the longest season in NFL history. I’m a believer in them. But the…

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