"I think it’s a new experience for everybody," Lewis said. "I don’t know that the 2009 team handled the last month of the season very well. I think this team will handle it better."
That's what Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said when he was asked about the 2009 playoff team not playing well down the home stretch. I hope he's right because under Lewis, the Bengals playoff teams, and teams that have hoped to go to the playoffs, have had a history of dropping the final games of the season and it has always come back to hurt them.
In 2005, the Bengals were having one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history. The people of Cincinnati and Bengals fans across the country hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 1990 and suddenly they were watching Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson lead the team to victory after victory including a win in Pittsburgh and a sweep of Baltimore. They were heading into Week 16 of the season with an 11-3 record. They already won the AFC North and a guaranteed playoff spot but they had a chance to go to the playoffs as the No. 2 seeded team and get a first-round bye. They had to play the Bills (who were 4-10 at the time) and the Chiefs (who were 8-6).
The Bengals could have, and should have, won both of those games but ended up losing both. Instead of getting a first-round by as the No. 2 seed team in the AFC, they went in as the No. 3 seed and hosted the Steelers and we all know how that game ended.
Then there's the 2006 season.
The Bengals were 8-5 heading into Week 15 of the season. They had three games left to play against the Colts, the Broncos and the Steelers. Once again, the Bengals had a chance to go to the playoffs, this time as a wildcard teams. They could have finished with a 10-6 record if they had just won two of the three final games of the season. Their road to getting into the playoffs wasn't going to be easy, though, considering how good the Colts were and the fact that the Steelers and the Broncos had just played each other in the AFC Championship game the year before, but they still had a shot. They lost to the 10-3 Colts, then they lost to the 8-6 Broncos and then, when they needed to beat the Steelers to go to the playoffs as a 9-7 team, they lost in overtime and missed out on the post season.
And then there's 2009.
Once again, after sweeping the entire division, the Bengals had pretty much sealed the AFC North. They headed into Week 13 with a 9-3 record and then, once again, proceeded to lose the majority of their home stretch games. They lost to the 10-2 Vikings and then they lost to the 10-3 Chargers. They won their next game against the Chiefs but turned right around and lost their final game of the season against the Jets. Again, instead of heading into the playoffs with a first-round bye, they lost three out of their last four games.
Are you seeing a trend?
The Bengals once again have a shot at the playoffs but they'll have to win at least three of their last five games to get there. They can still win the division, say if they win out and Baltimore helps them by losing another game, but they can at least seal a wild card berth if they beat the Texans, Rams and Cardinals and it would help if they beat either the Steelers or Ravens as well.
This seems like a different Bengals team in almost every single way. The players that we watched all through the 2000's aren't here anymore and the team has been rebuilt from new and exciting players. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green look like a great duo that will just get better in the future and the defensive front seven in one of the best units in the league. The "me" attitude has been replaced with a "we" attitude and it has shown both on and off the field.
Lewis isn't the only one who knows the team needs to be different at the end of the 2011 season than they were at the end of the 2009, 2006 and 2005 seasons.
"We are a different team, we really are," safety Chris Crocker said. "We’re more veteran guys, an older team. More experience. We are just a different team. We just are, I don’t think we played as well the second half of ballgames that season as we are now. Vice versa, teams weren’t scoring as many points as they are now vs. '09 season. You know, each year is different and you can’t worry about what you did in the past because nobody cares."
Hopefully they're right. It would be nice to see the Bengals do what they're capable of doing and heading to the playoffs instead of losing to teams that aren't as good as them at the end of the season. These next five games will show us exactly who the Bengals are and if they really are a different team or not.
We'll find out soon enough.