QB Andy Dalton reeled off three consecutive games with a passer rating over 100 during the Bengals' three-game win streak. (AP Images)

Arriving at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, MLB Rey Maualuga proceeded through the normal gameday routine. When the time came to lay out his uniform on the ground in front of him, he noticed a change on his black jersey.

A captain's "C" placed above his No. 58. A "C" had also been secretly ordered by Marvin Lewis above the No. 14 of QB Andy Dalton. They became the first Bengals players awarded the moniker since 2010.

“I usually grab my shoulder pads, put them on the ground, put all my clothes lined up, see what I'm going to wear,” Maualuga said. “Then I saw it. Took a second to sit there. I don't know --- I was in awe. It was sort of like a blessing and an honor.”

Few could predict such a fate one month ago. The Bengals entered a game against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants needing only a losing final score to top off their 2012 obituary. Losers of four consecutive games and left to rot in the wake of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Bengals heard it from coach Marvin Lewis, who challenged Dalton and Maualuga publicly to become leaders.

“We're looking for our quarterback and our middle linebacker to take hold of our football team,” Lewis said on Oct. 31. “At some point, you step out of your skin and you go. We've wallowed around here in mediocrity. Let's go.”

The motivational tactic called out his offensive and defensive leader but also rattled the cage of a group of young players that most believed to be among the next wave of budding stars in the NFL. Rallying around Dalton and Maualuga, the Bengals surprisingly blew away the Giants, 31-13. The next two weeks, the combined halftime scores of wins against the Chiefs and Raiders was 45-6.

Cincinnati won three consecutive games by at least 18 points for the first time since 1976.

While Baltimore battles injuries and Ben Roethlisberger holds the fate of the Steelers playoff chances in his healing ribs, the Bengals (6-5 overall, 1-3 AFC North) have played their way from forgotten to tied for the final playoff spot with Pittsburgh. And they're playing nearly flawlessly in every phase.

Dalton is enjoying his best stretch as a pro, with nine touchdowns to zero interceptions. A.J. Green has evolved into one of the premier receivers in football, breaking off a streak of nine consecutive games with a receiving touchdown. On defense, Geno Atkins can make a strong argument that he's the best defensive tackle in football and stake claim to one of the best pass-rush seasons at his position in nearly a decade.

Only four entire teams own more sacks than the Cincinnati defensive linemen, who have 30. Maualuga leads the team in tackles, and Cincinnati has allowed just two touchdowns in three games.

In a league where throwing the ball and rushing the passer equal championships, the Bengals boast elite, emerging players on both sides.

It only took the four-game losing streak and public challenge to fit the pieces together. Safe to say Maualuga and Dalton earned the jersey accessory.

“I think we refocused and realized the work and the preparation it takes every week to win in the NFL,” OL Andrew Whitworth said. “I think being a young team, they needed to learn that. I think guys are ready, they're prepared, they understand what it takes. And we definitely have young guys who have the talent to be successful at this level.”

How successful? Could this group compete with the offense of New England, the defense of Houston or with Peyton Manning in Denver? Maybe, maybe not. But projecting a wide gap between the Bengals and those teams would be a severe miscalculation for anybody. After all, Houston just survived back-to-back overtimes -- against the Jaguars and Lions -- and the Bengals owned a lead in the fourth quarter against Manning and Broncos earlier this month.

In the final five games of the season, the Bengals have a favorable schedule that includes San Diego (4-7), Dallas (5-6) and Philadelphia (3-8) the next three weeks. They should be favored to win all three. With a thin margin for error, though, any result shy of two wins would essentially equal elimination, and the Bengals are well aware of that.

“You can't really afford to lose a ballgame,” safety Chris Crocker said. “We're kind of playing with that urgency. In the same sense, it's like, why can't we win every game also? We see how good we can play, so let's just go out there and let it loose.”

Nobody should be calling the Bengals Super Bowl contenders yet, but thanks to Lewis' motivational tactic, everyone should keep Cincinnati in the conversation.

When discussing thoughts on the effectiveness of challenging the two players to step up as leaders, Lewis sprouted a proud, wide grin seen often around the facilities these days and succinctly allowed the understatement of the season.

“I think it's done well,” he said.

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