Though it seems like a small thing, there's a certain energy right now with the Bengals. An aura of confidence, grasping a written goal with their bare mitts, ready to cold-cock it because that's the most reasonable thing to do. See this team is about breaking historical trends within the franchise, snapping losing streaks and accomplishing milestones that have been around longer than most players have been alive.
Take me for example. Being around for as long as I have, watching the depressing losses and ridiculous overreactions to generic wins, you tend to get a gut feeling about such things. "They're going to lose," was common, akin to the losing culture you've heard about. My confidence level that Cincinnati would make for a competitive postseason game last year against the energetic and emotional Texans was equally minimal, but it related more to a sense of martyrism that's followed a pessimistic Bengals fan.
Perhaps it's dominating the second-half schedule, winning seven of eight including a playoff clinching win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or a season-ending victory against the Baltimore Ravens, in the "our backups are better than yours" game of the year. Maybe it's just the opponent, who have lost three of the final four games entering the postseason.
It feels different than 2009 when Cincinnati lost 37-0 during the regular season finale, losing four of the final seven games that season. New York was hot. The Bengals were not. Naturally my gut reaction felt a sickness grow as the week meandered. In fact the Bengals have always felt as if they were backing themselves into the postseason. Maybe even 2005, but even that was different. That squad was destined for greatness, cut short by injuries to Carson Palmer and Chris Henry.
"Back in 2005, I thought we were in pretty good shape until one play (early knee injury suffered by QB Carson Palmer)," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "I can remember at the Thursday practice that week, I had to slow guys down because of how hard they were practicing."
Lewis has experience during practices heading into a postseason game, dating back to his days as a defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, and he's feeling it with his team right now.
"It goes back to Baltimore that year we won the Super Bowl," said Lewis. "We were having to ride to the stadium every day to practice on a field that wasn’t frozen. I remember when we got to Tampa to actually play the game, our guys felt like it was summertime again. We had to slow practice down because we were afraid someone was going to hurt somebody, the way they were running and colliding into each other and so forth.
"I think we have that kind of energy and enthusiasm (with this team). We have it because of youth, and that keeps us driving and going."
Andrew Whitworth agrees, but would like to amend that to include experience.
"I think the experience of being there helps. Guys know the excitement level, the energy level. There’s a step up from the preseason to the regular season. When the playoffs kick off, there is another launch, because you are playing against the best teams. The 12 best teams are in. Those are the best teams that performed this year. The energy is going to be there, and you’re going to be playing against excellent players. Every week, you’re going to be playing against somebody that’s really good. You have to bring your best game. The teams that bring their best games are going to win. You have to be able to do that."
Whitworth is entering his third postseason during his seven-year career but guys like A.J. Green and Andy Dalton have already experienced the postseason, recalling last year's game in Houston.
"We had chances. We didn’t play well enough to win the game. We have to come out and start fast. We have to be aggressive. We have to do a lot of things better than we did last year. I think it’s good that we played there last year. It’s good to know the atmosphere, know what it’s like and how loud it is."
The experienced A.J. Green shrugs his shoulders with the cliche, "It's just another game. I just need to stay level-headed and play my game." Unfortunately he's largely been accounted for by the opposing defense, limiting Green to under 60 yards receiving in three of the final four games.
Ever since Marvin Lewis took this team over, milestones and accomplishments have been a progressive thing. Starting with a non-losing season, winning season followed by a postseason appearance. Since then the milestone accomplishments slowed, presented with another grand opportunity this weekend against the Texans.