|Mike Brown has more to smile about these days with a young team seemingly on the rise. (AP)|
CINCINNATI -- Around Cincinnati, winning football seasons don't surface often. They emerge with about the same frequency as snow-free winters and traffic-free commutes.
Before the arrival of Marvin Lewis, an 8-8 season in the Queen City was cause for celebration. Dancing in the streets. Hugging in the living room. Ticker tape out of stock.
Even in Lewis' best season with the Bengals of 2005 in which a playoff game began with Carson Palmer's left knee crumbling and concluded with the sour taste of a loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, the sense of true accomplishment hovered over the season. At the time, the 11-5 mark broke a spell of 14 consecutive non-winning campaigns and the team's first playoff berth since 1990. Since, their reign as the source of late-night football jokes and face of NFL futility hasn't exactly dissipated. A disheartened and dejected fan base threw up its hands the last two years as attendance plummeted to the point almost 25,000 seats sat empty for a game with significant playoff implications this past Sunday.
In front of 41,273 against Arizona, the Bengals team picked to finish 32nd out of 32 by many pundits this preseason clinched their third winning season in the past 21 years.
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Yet, among those inside the Bengals locker room there was no dancing or hugging. The ticker tape lay untouched. In fact, securing a winning season was barely mentioned.
"My standards are a little higher than that," Marvin Lewis said. "This club has a chance to keep building and becoming a perennial playoff team. This is another step in the process."
A win against Baltimore would allow an opportunity for the team's first playoff victory in 21 years. A loss would likely place them among the best in the heaping pile of non-playoff teams in franchise history.
Expectations from outsiders may lie somewhere between "seriously?" and "meh," but those wearing stripes and shoulder pads on Sundays maintain a view unaffected by public perception and pithy punch lines.
"There is no one that works in this business that would have believed it, with this team and the young guys we had coming in," left tackle and unofficial team spokesman Andrew Whitworth said. "We continued to believe it and now we got an opportunity."
Nobody believed in them, and national expectations have far been exceeded. The reality of a rookie quarterback, rookie wide receiver and collection of castoffs won't disappear should the Ravens keep the Bengals -- a perfect 9-0 against teams not currently in the playoffs -- to a winless 0-7 against teams pegged for the postseason.
"I think we came out and did some great things," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "We proved a lot of people wrong. We showed some spark early on. We lost to some teams we should have beat. Win or lose this week, the team showed a lot of heart and determination with their pride and fighting through and coming back. This has been a good year. Why can't it be an awesome year?"
Maualuga often reflects publicly as the young conscience at the core of the youngest team in the AFC. He believes this season only began an upward ascension. Hard to argue. Quarterback Andy Dalton became the first rookie since the merger to throw for 20 touchdowns and win at least eight games. A.J. Green (63 receptions, 1,031 yards) is having arguably the best year by a rookie wideout since Randy Moss in 1998. Driving a defense currently ranked sixth in the NFL is a defensive line composed of eight players totaling 33.5 sacks at an average age of 25.8. These results seemed unattainable when the team gathered in Georgetown, Ky., for training camp amid QB trade demands, the exodus of CB Johnathan Joseph to Houston and stench of 4-12 season still lingering.
"It just tells you how much work we've put in during camp and how much camaraderie that we have," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "No one but us believed that we would be where we're at right now." The difference between the current atmosphere inside the walls of Paul Brown Stadium in comparison to previous years lives in the approach to this weekend's season-defining game. The bar is raised higher. This team is shooting for its third playoff appearance in six years. Just playing in games for a shot to go to the playoffs like Sunday against Baltimore doesn't move the needle anymore, even in the most encouraging of seasons. "The goal is to be world champions and we don't look at it as anything short of that," Lewis said. A change of pace concept for this franchise, to say the least. "It's something this team believed we had a chance to do, but we weren't getting much credit from the outside," Dalton said. "Inside this locker room, the coaches and everybody here knew we had a chance."
To this point, the Bengals earned only that: a chance. The season carved the foundation of a sustainable, winning model. While viewed by the team as an accomplishment, there is no satisfaction -- yet.
"All I can picture is us growing and becoming special," Maualuga said. "I just hope we don't start in a couple years. Why not start this week and feed off that and just build on that? I know we're capable of being that team."