- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - Right tackle Eric Winston sat out most of the season, waiting for a team to give him another chance. He finally got it with the Bengals, and he’s settling right in.

Winston was in for 45 percent of the offensive plays during Cincinnati’s 30-0 win in Cleveland on Sunday, less than two weeks after signing as a free agent. The 31-year-old lineman was released by Seattle during the preseason and didn’t get an offer until the Bengals needed someone to fill in for the injured Andre Smith.

After trying a couple players at the position, they decided to let Winston have a shot during the second half in Cleveland. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told line coach Paul Alexander to see what Winston could do. He played well enough to earn another look.

“It was a huge part,” Jackson said. “I remember at some point there in the third quarter I told Paul put him in, let’s go. That’s what you do. Sometimes you get a feel for things.”

The Bengals (9-4-1) are impressed by how fast he’s learned the system, making him an important part of a team on the cusp of its fourth straight playoff appearance. They can clinch a berth by beating Denver (11-3) on Monday night.

Cincinnati leads the AFC North by a half-game over Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Bengals finish the season in Pittsburgh.

Winston, president of the NFL Players Association, kept in shape for the three months he didn’t have a team. He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to play a significant role at first, but came through the Cleveland game without problem.

“I was surprised actually a little bit because I’d worked real hard and I’d tried to maintain a level of playing shape where if I had to come in somewhere and play, I wouldn’t be dragging around,” Winston said. “Playing in the game for a long period of time Sunday, I was happy with where I was at. I think another week of pushing it and I’ll be good to go.”

Winston helped the Bengals rush for a season-high 244 yards against the Browns, playing so well that coach Marvin Lewis expects him to be an important part of the offense Monday night, perhaps even starting.

“He wants the opportunity to play and help us to win games and get in the playoffs,” Lewis said. “So it was a good fit for us and I’m glad it worked out. Like any good pro, he’s embraced the learning part, and spent the time and everything to get up to speed, and put in the effort to do that.

“We’ll keep going and moving forward. We’ve been pleased with his progress.”

Winston thinks he’s in good enough shape to handle a bigger role.

“Obviously I knew my role could be as a backup and a reserve guy, but I don’t think anybody comes in, gets in on a team and says, ‘Man, I hope I don’t play,’” Winston said. “If that’s the role they’re going to put me in, great. I’m up for the challenge and I look forward to it.”

NOTES: Receiver A.J. Green fully practiced Friday, a day after he went home sick. Receiver and kick returner Brandon Tate was sick and missed practice Friday. … Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles tendon) and defensive end Carlos Dunlap (calf) were limited in practice. … Tight end Jermaine Gresham fully practiced for a second straight day, an indication he’ll be ready for Monday night. Gresham missed the game in Cleveland with an injured toe.


Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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