Last Tuesday at noon, just seven hours after the Bengals got back from a physically and emotionally draining loss at Denver, Marvin Lewis sat down with Dave Lapham and me to tape his weekly TV show.
It was roughly the 80th time we’ve recorded “Bengals Weekly” together and I saw something that I had never seen on the show before – Coach Lewis getting choked up.
It happened when Lap ended our interview segment with the following question: “At this stage of the season, what are you most proud of about your football team?”
“How hard they play and how disappointed we are when we come up short,” Marvin said as his eyes watered a bit. “It’s hurts them. And then they come back to work, tighten their resolve, put their heads down and work harder.”
That’s a coach that is proud of what he’s built in Cincinnati, and Marvin Lewis has every right to be.
While the 2015 Bengals will ultimately be judged on whether they can end the franchise’s 24-season drought without a playoff win, the players and coaches deserve a ton of credit for putting themselves back into a position to do something about it.
The Baltimore Ravens have missed the playoffs in two of the last three years. If the Jets had won on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have missed the postseason for the third time in four years. The Buffalo Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 years. In other words, getting there is not a given.
But for the fifth straight season and sixth time in seven years, the Bengals are one of 12 teams to make it through the regular season meat grinder and still have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
“This is just our first step,” said Coach Lewis. “That’s what our guys know. The journey is just beginning.”
“The playoffs are a brand new season and I think everybody realizes that you have to be at your best,” said Kevin Zeitler.
The Bengals might not be at their best next week unless Andy Dalton makes a remarkably fast recovery from a broken thumb. The question is, will they still be good enough to win? In his three starts since Dalton’s injury, AJ McCarron has four touchdown passes, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 100.1. If he continues to avoid turnovers, the Bengals defense will keep them in any playoff game that the second-year quarterback starts.
“We didn’t execute everything the right way, but the good thing is that we won,” said McCarron after Sunday’s victory over Baltimore. “It’s not always going to be roses, but we fought hard and we got the win.”
Cincinnati is 2-1 in AJ’s three starts, but the Bengals’ confidence in their young quarterback might have grown the most from the only one he lost – the overtime thriller in Denver.
“That was a pressure-packed night,” said Lewis. “So that was a huge step in his development to go through something like that where every play was win-or-lose on each and every snap. There was a lot of tension, and he was able to stay calm through that, deliver the football, run the offense, and make good decisions.”
So now, we begin what is going to feel like the longest week in history. I promise you that the days are going to crawl as we eagerly anticipate the third and final showdown this year in what’s become one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh.
“It’s going to be a fun game,” said Tyler Eifert. “Obviously this rivalry has heated up in recent years – especially this year. It will be an awesome atmosphere here at Paul Brown.”
“We know that they’re one of the best teams in the league,” said Coach Lewis. “So if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
For Michael Johnson, the opponent at this point doesn’t matter.
“Whoever we’ve got to play, put the ball down and let’s get after it,” Johnson told me. “Whoever. Wherever.”
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