It's hard to image. Yet here we are. It's hard to believe that only months ago our sad little Bengals were reeling from the exiled Carson Palmer, only to luck into a rookie offensive coordinator convincing a stubborn owner to change his mind on a quarterback during the 2011 NFL Draft. It's hard to believe that Johnathan Joseph's departure, injuries to Keith Rivers, Roddrick Muckelroy and Dontay Moch would usher an era of Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson, Nate Clements and a reborn Reggie Nelson and Andre Smith, two former first round picks with major contributions this season. Contracts were extended with foundation players, a place kicker with torn knee makes an incredible return and rookies are playing years older than their 11-game NFL careers would seem to show.
What's not to like about this team?
It's all unreal. Yet in late November, it's become the expected. Six weeks ago I would have called the season "a success" just for shattering expectations that were slightly above showing up on Sunday. Now? I'm entertaining the notion that Cincinnati isn't standing on the gallows during a ten-point deficit midway through the third quarter, unlike their predecessors. I'm entertaining the notion that the concept of playoffs isn't an obsessive fan's delusion; it's more science fact than fiction.
Andy Dalton has already broken rookie records. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are becoming premiere players at their respective positions and A.J. Green's shock and awe factor responsible for many broken jaws being examined by doctors because of the force that jaw has hitting the desk. Even the idea of praising the entire coaching staff has been as foreign to Bengals fans as Executive of the Year praises for president Mike Brown.
Beautiful portraits of a rugged toughness, perseverance that even makes Rudy proud, are just a handful of explored descriptions about this team.
Wins are exhausting because they result from a growing excitement that explodes, taking time for calm to bring us back down. Losses aren't like losses during the Carson Palmer era, where anger would become extreme. Still a major disappointment, but losses no longer have that jump off the wagon mentality.
It's hard not to like this team.