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“The Journey Is Just Beginning”

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.

Marvin cold night (440x302)

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.

McCarron vs Ravens (440x293)

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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Bengals D Sets Up Showdown In Denver

In Sunday’s 24-14 win at San Francisco, the Bengals averaged a paltry 1.9 yards on their 36 rushes, converted a mere 4 of 14 third down opportunities (29%), and had to punt a season-high eight times.

“We wanted it to be pretty, you know?” said Marvin Jones with a laugh.

In this case it was substance over style.

Playing for the first time in 82 games without Andy Dalton at quarterback, the Bengals relied on a ball-hawking defense and Kevin Huber’s booming left leg to methodically beat the 49ers.

“We knew coming into this game that defense was going to be key with AJ (McCarron) making his first start,” said Domata Peko. “They say a quarterback’s best friend is running the ball and a good defense so we were really trying to elevate our level of play. Thank God that we did.”

Dunlap recovers fumble (440x313)

The Bengals defense finished with four takeaways including a fumble that was forced and recovered by Carlos Dunlap midway through the second quarter. It gave the Bengals the ball at the San Francisco 11-yard-line and led to a one yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill.

“That’s something we needed,” said Jones. “We were off to a slow start.”

“(Carlos) is known for doing that type of stuff,” said Peko. “Hawking fools down. Hawking receivers and running backs down and stripping the ball. That was a big play defensively. We needed something to get us going and Carlos did that.”

On San Francisco’s next drive, a “shank you very much” 18-yard-punt by Bradley Pinion led to Hill’s second short TD. On the 49ers following possession, an interception by Vontaze Burfict set up a 20-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to rookie tight end Tyler Kroft.

“It was awesome,” said Kroft after his first NFL TD. “It was kind of everything I dreamed of. They sent pressure and AJ and I knew that I was the hot read on that play so it worked out like it was supposed to.”

After sputtering on their first five drives, the Bengals scored three touchdowns in less than five minutes.

“It took us a little while to get our footing, but when we needed to put points on the board we did it,” said Kroft.

McCarron vs San Fran (440x307)

McCarron did exactly what the Bengals asked him to, completing 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards with 1 TD and 0 INT for a passer rating of 115.6.

“The biggest difference in the football game is that Blaine Gabbert had three interceptions and AJ didn’t have any,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham.

“He was cool, calm, and collected,” said Kroft. “Everything that you want in a quarterback.”

“I think he did a great job,” said Hill. “He didn’t turn the all over and that was huge.”

Taking care of the ball was enough to beat San Francisco, but the offense is likely going to have to be far more effective next week in Denver. A win would clinch the AFC North and give the Bengals a first-round bye in the playoffs.

“This is going to be a huge game for us and everybody knows that,” said Jones.

“It feels awesome that we’re in the dance for the fifth time in a row,” said Peko. “But we’re looking to do some damage this year and go further than we’ve ever been. We’re trying to get the ring.”

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Bengals Lose Passer And Poise

The Cincinnati Bengals played their first 10 games of the season without having to put a member of the opening day roster on injured reserve. Through 12 games, the only player to suffer a season-ending injury since the start of the year was Darqueze Dennard.

In other words, the Bengals had been incredibly fortunate in terms of injuries heading into Sunday’s 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh. But the odds caught up to them in Game 13.

“One thing about this league man, to get to that Super Bowl you’ve got to have some luck on your side,” said A.J. Green. “We had some bad breaks today.”

Dalton in cast (440x248)

In this case, the “break” was literal as the Bengals lost the player they could least afford to lose with a fractured thumb.

“It sucks about Andy,” said Kevin Zeitler. “It’s very unfortunate. It was a great play by the Steelers down there and Andy went to prevent the return and stuff happens.”

At this point, we don’t know how long quarterback Andy Dalton is going to be out. Additionally, the Bengals best cornerback Adam Jones missed the game with an injured foot, and the NFL co-leader in touchdowns, tight end Tyler Eifert, exited with a concussion.

“We’ve got to circles the wagons and stay positive,” said Michael Johnson. “If the injured guys have to be out for a while, we’ll have to have other guys step up. We’re built for this.”

In the NFL, you had better be. This season, the list of star quarterbacks who have missed considerable time due to injury includes Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Andrew Luck. Dalton had started 81 consecutive games, a record for a Bengals quarterback, and was having his best season with 25 TD passes, 7 interceptions, and a passer rating of 106.2.

“It’s so frustrating and I feel bad for him,” said Zeitler. “He’s been playing great and he’s been a great leader this year. He’s been doing everything he had to do, but it is what it is. We need McCarron to step up, we have talent in this room, and we’ve got to get through it.”

McCarron vs Steelers (440x294)

AJ McCarron did not appear overwhelmed against the Steelers as he went 22-for-32 for 280 yards, with 2 TDs, 2 INTs, and a passer rating of 90.6.

“I thought he did great,” said Green. “To be thrown in the fire like that against the Pittsburgh Steelers who are playing out of their minds right now, I thought he handled it well. The stage didn’t seem too big for him, he commanded the huddle very well, and I think when we get back to work this week and he gets some more reps with the ones, I think he’ll be fine.”

“AJ did not take one snap with the first string offense last week,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “He was Ben Roethlisberger at practice and ran Pittsburgh’s plays all week. So I tip my cap to him for how he did. He wasn’t happy obviously and was lamenting the two interceptions but that’s how competitive he is.”

“AJ can play – it’s not a secret,” said Johnson. “I expected him to come in and play well and he did. He’ll get more comfortable with more practice time if he has to be in there and hopefully Andy will make a speedy recovery.”

In the meantime, the Bengals next three opponents are San Francisco, Denver, and Baltimore. This weekend, they lost by a combined score of 74-28. Their starting quarterbacks were all backups at the beginning of the season: Blaine Gabbert, Brock Osweiler, and Jimmy Clausen.

“We’ll have a week to prepare with AJ (McCarron) and we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get that chemistry down as fast as we can,” said Green.

“We’ll be fine,” said Johnson. “The main thing is to do what we need to do to keep it a family and stay tight.”

“We’ve got to get ready for San Fran because we can’t get stuck on this,” said Zeitler. “We’ve got to finish strong.”

As bleak as things seemed at the end of the loss to Pittsburgh, the Bengals will clinch at least a wild card playoff berth with a win next week at San Francisco. And regardless of what happens the next two weeks, Cincinnati would win the AFC North by beating Baltimore in the final game of the regular season. The Bengals would also capture the division by winning two of their last three games, or winning one game coupled with a Pittsburgh loss or tie.

**********

In addition to losing their quarterback on Sunday, the Bengals frequently lost their poise. There were numerous skirmishes throughout the game, beginning with the pregame shoving match between Vontaze Burfict and Vince Williams – the Steelers linebacker that had threatened him on Twitter.

“I was shocked, I guess, at the beginning,” said Zeitler. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“It was one of the least-poised games that I’ve ever been a part of and that was disappointing,” said Johnson. “We have to be better than that. We talked about it all week and they came in and got us to do exactly what they wanted us to do – and that’s get into all of that crap and not focus on playing between the whistles. You can see the outcome.”

“Guys lost their poise sometimes,” said Green. “That’s when you have to channel all of that stuff because you can’t fight on the field. So why get into it? Just go back out there and play the next play.”

“It was a tough, physical game,” added Zeitler. “What else do you expect from Bengals/Steelers?”

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The Game To Match His Name

The first time I met A.J. Green was boarding a bus at Paul Brown Stadium before my first game as the team’s radio announcer. The Bengals were headed to the airport for the 2011 preseason opener in Detroit and since I was still broadcasting games for the Pawtucket Red Sox at that time, I had not been able to attend training camp.

So I pounced on the opportunity to introduce myself to the Bengals number one draft pick and in the course of our conversation I asked, “What does A.J. stand for?”

“Adriel Jeremiah,” he replied.

What a majestic-sounding name I thought.

**********

Following Sunday’s 37-3 win over Cleveland, it occurred to me how fortunate we are to watch A.J. Green every week.

Green TD at Cleveland (382x440)

We’ve been blessed in Cincinnati to have some of the greatest players in sports history spend much of their careers here: Oscar Robertson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey Jr., Anthony Munoz, and Ken Anderson to name a few. While it’s too early to rank Green among the NFL’s all-time greats, the numbers suggest that he is headed in that direction.

With his 128 receiving yards against the Browns, A.J. joined Randy Moss as the second receiver in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons.

Additionally, Green is currently on a pace to finish the season with 93 receptions. If he increases that slightly and ends the year with 98 or more, he’ll break Larry Fitzgerald’s record for most catches by an NFL player in his first five years.

“I’m just having fun out here with my teammates,” said Green. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Winning is fun. It’s the first time that I’ve been a part of a 10-2 team and it feels great. It motivates you to get better each week.”

In the Green/Dalton era, the Bengals now have twice as many wins (50) as losses (25) during the regular season.

“They’ve been joined at the hip which is so fun and so cool about them,” said Marvin Lewis. “They’re everything you want in every way. They’re great role models and they’re great leaders for the rest of the football team.”

“We came in together and how we’ve grown over the last five seasons is unbelievable,” said Green.

**********

The 27-year-old receiver is not one to boast, but even he had to admit that his third quarter Baryshnikov-like toe-tap catch at the one yard line was a thing of beauty.

“It’s always a good highlight when you get that toe tap and fall out of bounds,” said Green with a grin. “So that was a good one.”

A.J. says that he had a little extra motivation in making the grab – he didn’t want to get criticized by wide receivers coach James Urban.

“The last couple of years I have been out of bounds by a heel a few times so I knew that I needed to get my toes down so that ‘Urb’ won’t yell at me,” Green told me. “This time I got my toes down so that was good.”

Yes, the four-time Pro Bowler is not beyond trying to please his coaches.

**********

Green taking field (440x293)

When the Bengals selected Green with the fourth pick in the 2011 draft, I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Don’t get me wrong, I had no doubt that A.J. could be a terrific player, but I questioned the wisdom of drafting a receiver that high.

I have rarely been so happy to be so wrong.

His game is as majestic as his name.

Up Hill

Over the last nine games of his rookie season, Jeremy Hill averaged 103 rushing yards per game. He hasn’t had that many in a single game this year, but his season-high 86 yards in Sunday’s 31-7 win over the Rams was a big step in the right direction.

Hill vs Rams (440x293)

“It’s great for us and it’s going to be essential for the rest of our season,” said Andrew Whitworth. “He’s the kind of back that’s made for this time of the year. To get him going and running downhill on people makes us that much better offensively.”

“He didn’t have, like, a 25 yard carry,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “He had a lot of 6-to-12 yard carries and just kind of pounded it in there. He also had a 14 yard catch, so he had 100 scrimmage yards in the game on 17 touches. That’s pretty darn efficient.”

The second year running back out of LSU says the reason for his biggest output of the season was simple.

“Our offensive line played their butts off,” said Hill. “They got hats on a hat on a lot of those runs and that makes my job easier.”

“The Rams came in with 30 sacks and didn’t get any, and they only had one tackle-for-loss for one yard,” said Lapham. “So hats off to the offensive line.”

“We were able to be efficient on offense and didn’t leave ourselves in third-and-forever,” said Whitworth. “We did a good job with that.”

Through 11 games, Hill has 140 carries for 490 yards. That puts him on a pace for 713 yards this season – roughly 400 fewer than he had as a rookie. But Hill says staying positive has not been a challenge.

“Not at all,” Jeremy told me. “When you’re on a winning football team it makes everything so much easier. You throw out the ‘self’ things and the personal goals. It’s all about the team man, because when you’re on a team like this that has aspirations of winning the big one, you’ve got to do everything you can to reach that ultimate goal. So for me, it’s been all about that ultimate goal – just doing what you can do to help the team win football games. That’s all I’m worried about.”

That’s music to the ears of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

“It’s not about individuals; we get rid of that at the door,” said Jackson. “At the end of the year, they’re going to crown one team as World Champions. They’re not going to say that Jeremy Hill is the champion or Andy Dalton is the champion. They’re going to say the Cincinnati Bengals are the champions. That’s all we talk about.”

Dalton has 23 touchdown passes, 6 interceptions, and a passer rating of 105.3. If Hill can continue to average 5.4 yards a carry as he did against St. Louis, the Bengals offense will be that much more difficult to contain in December and beyond.

“This last stretch is the most important stretch of the season to put yourself where you want to be going into the playoffs,” said Hill. “I just have to keep working and keep pounding and we’ll be fine.”

“I thought that Jeremy ran really well and obviously Gio has been playing well all year,” said Dalton. “We’ve got to keep both of those guys rolling.”

“It was definitely good to see Jeremy rolling today,” said Michael Johnson.

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Mike Brown Reflects On Carson Palmer and 2005 Bengals

It’s been 10 years since Carson Palmer led the Bengals to the 2005 AFC North title, ending Cincinnati’s 14-year playoff drought.

To me, it feels like it’s been twice that long.

Carson with Bengals

That year the former Heisman Trophy winner led the NFL with 32 touchdown passes and set a Bengals’ record for single season passer rating that still stands at 101.1.

Unfortunately, Palmer’s season ended 4 minutes and 50 seconds into a first round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers when he shattered his knee while completing his first pass of the game – a perfectly lofted 66-yard strike to Chris Henry.

Carson rebounded from his injury to make the Pro Bowl the following season, but the Bengals were never as good as a team, going 29-39 with Palmer as their starting quarterback in his final five seasons in Cincinnati.

The 2005 season was unquestionably the highlight of his eight years in a Bengals uniform.

Earlier this year, Paul Dehner Jr. from the Cincinnati Enquirer did a terrific series of podcasts looking back at that season with a variety of players and coaches (here’s a link).

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to reflect on the 2005 season with team president Mike Brown for the Bengals radio network and I thought it would be timely to publish the Q and A in blog form before Cincinnati faces Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night.

When you remember the 2005 season, what immediately comes to mind?

“Carson Palmer. I thought that Carson was a splendid passer and if he had stayed healthy in that final game, I wonder how far we would have gone. We had a good team and we lost our most important cog. Even then it was close and we should have won anyway in that final game.”

Carson was 26 years old at the time, it was his second year as the starting quarterback, and he topped a 100 passer rating in 11 of the first 12 games that season. At that point, did you think that you had the best quarterback moving forward in the NFL?

“I did. I had a high regard for Carson. He was as pretty a thrower as I’ve ever seen. He was accurate at all ranges – not many are as accurate downfield as he was. I don’t know how he would say the injury impacted him – I think it did – but he recovered and he was a very good player for us. In my mind he was a special player.”

Chad Riverdance

That year Chad Johnson was at the height of his powers with 97 catches for more than 1,400 yards and it was also the year of his celebrations. How did you feel about that?

“I thought it was funny at first. I remember in the game with the Bears that he did a little dance that stayed in my mind, but then it began to wear a little bit because he pushed too hard. He thought of it as his weekly act and had to have something new and different. I’m not so sure that if he hadn’t just stayed with the original little dance that he wouldn’t have been better off in the long run. But he was very quick. He got separation and at that stage of his career, nobody could stay with him. We had a tremendous passer in Carson and he’d put the ball on the money when we would do those little 18 yard in-patterns. The ball would be there and Chad would have momentary clearance and catch it. Nobody could really stop that.”

NFL: DEC 31 Steelers v Bengals

Mike, it seems somewhat forgotten to me that Rudi Johnson set the franchise record that year for rushing yards in a season with nearly 1,500. Do you look at him as one of the unsung greats in franchise history?

“Unsung is the word – you’re right. He was a tough, hard runner and he gave us what we needed to counterbalance Chad, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and our ability to throw the ball with Carson. It was a good combination and it was a shame that it broke down due to injury when Carson got hurt. But it’s a fond memory for me. Thinking back on that team is always fun.”

Odell Thurman close up

Your team leader in tackles that year was a rookie linebacker who also had five interceptions and five forced fumbles – Odell Thurman. It turned out to be his only NFL season due to off-the-field problems. He’s 32-year-old now and might still be playing if not for that. Would he have been one of the best defensive players in the NFL in your opinion?

“He was that year. He was a great talent and it’s such a shame that we lost him and he lost his career to the off-field problems that he had. I have real regrets about that. He’s a nice person – you’d like him if you knew him – and he had the whole package. Real quickness, suddenness, and he was as decisive as you could be. He was a difference maker, and I think he would have been a Hall of Fame player if he could have hung on to his career.”

That team clinched its first playoff berth since the 1990 season with a December win in Detroit. What stands out about that 41 to 17 victory?

“If I told you, you would just scratch your head. I remember sitting on the bus waiting to leave for the airport after the game, and I had a feeling of inner satisfaction that is rare. When I think of that game I honestly think of that moment. Our players are drifting out of the stadium toward the bus, there is a crowd of people around, and our players are going over and talking with family and friends and I was just sitting there being engulfed with, ‘By God, we did it.’ It felt pretty good.”

Palmer knee injury

We all know what happened in the playoff game when Carson tore up his knee when he was hit by Kimo von Oelhoffen. In all of your years in football, was that the lowest point?

“Well I’d have competition for the lowest point (laughs). I don’t know what exactly would be the lowest point. I guess losing the Super Bowl up in Detroit. We had the better team and we lost to the 49ers – at least that’s how I felt. I had a headache to end all headaches after that game. But if you’re in this business for as long as I’ve been in it, there will be moments of all kinds. Elation, depression, dejection, failure, success…that’s all part of it. Maybe that’s what makes it so interesting.”

I was working at Fox 19 back then, and that year any time there was a player appearance in Cincinnati it was a mob scene. Fans in this town loved that 2005 team. Do you remember the feeling in the city that year?

“Well I’ve seen our city when it caught on fire and really got behind the team and supported us. It requires winning and you have to instill hope and then all of a sudden they begin to think, ‘My God, maybe we can.’ They get swept up in it and it’s very exciting and fun. I’d like to see another one of those.”

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Patriot Night

It was appropriate on “Salute To Service” night at Paul Brown Stadium that I felt like we were watching patriots.

As in the New England Patriots.

Salute to service

In their 31-10 win over Cleveland, the Bengals did not have a turnover, only committed two penalties, made great halftime adjustments, had their quarterback post a 139.8 passer rating, and got three touchdown catches from their sensational tight end.

Sound like anybody you know?

To take it a step further, their postgame comments were positively “Belichickian.”

“We can play better,” said Andrew Whitworth. “We’ve got to keep pushing ourselves. That performance is not going to be good enough in four or five weeks so we really have to amp it up.”

“We know the potential that we have,” said Marvin Jones. “It’s up to us every week to go out and reach that potential because it’s so high and we have high expectations for ourselves.”

“We’re a tight group and I feel like we’re a championship-type group,” said Dre Kirkpatrick.

Cincinnati wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. When Cleveland ended the first half with a 10-play, 92 yard touchdown drive, the Bengals only had a 14-10 lead.

But the coaching staff made a great adjustment to keep Johnny Manziel in the pocket and the Browns were only able to gain 32 yards while being shutout in the second half.

“I think the defensive coaches and players did a good job of understanding that, ‘This is their attack. If we want to win the football game, this is what we’ve got to do,’” said Marvin Lewis.

And when the defense got three straight three-and-outs in the second half, the offense scored 17 straight points to turn it into a rout.

“We were all talking about it at halftime and saying, ‘Dang, we only had three possessions,’” said Jones. “But they were effective. Two of them resulted in touchdowns and we were just playing good, solid football.”

“Good” and “solid” are not strong enough words to describe Eifert who put on a show for the nationally-televised audience with a career-high three touchdown catches.

“It’s crazy,” said Jones. “After he scored his first touchdown, I was like, ‘Bro, you’re going to get two more.’ I called it because we know the talent that he has. He’s a match-up nightmare.”

“He’s a better route-runner than I am,” said A.J. Green. “At 250 pounds.”

“It feels good to score touchdowns and it feels good to help this team win, but the best feeling is winning,” said Eifert. “That’s the most important thing, and the guys in this locker room understand that.”

Eifert spike

At the halfway point of the regular season, Eifert has nine touchdown catches putting him on a pace for 18 this season. The NFL single-season record for a tight end is 17 by Rob Gronkowski. Ironically, Eifert debuted a Gronk-like spike after his first TD on Thursday night.

“I’m just getting into the whole spiking thing,” said Eifert. “Growing up, I was always told to just hand the ball to the ref. But sometimes when you have so much time between the score and all of your buddies running up to you, you’ve got to do something or otherwise you look stupid. I’m definitely not going to dance, so I just went with the spike.”

The Bengals are 13-2 in their last 15 regular season games, matching the – you guessed it – Patriots for the NFL’s best record during that stretch. The difference between the two teams, of course, is that New England ended last year with the Lombardi Trophy.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft has four of them in his trophy case and while Mike Brown is still trying to win his first, Carlos Dunlap hopes the Bengals owner was able to savor the team’s eighth straight win on Thursday night.

“I know Mr. Brown is up there excited and probably popping a couple of bottles of champagne,” said Dunlap after the game. “Hopefully he saves one for me.”

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Safeties Save Day In Pittsburgh

In the Bengals’ 48-year history, they have never used their first pick in the draft on a safety.

Never.

That suggests that the Bengals don’t consider it a top priority in building the roster. But their safeties saved the day on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati’s offense struggled. Twice, the Bengals drove into the red zone and failed to score. On another occasion, an interception by Reggie Nelson gave the Bengals the ball at the Steelers’ 33-yard-line and the offense lost 17 yards before having to punt.

“Playing a great defense like these guys at their place, we knew that it was going to be a little ugly here and there,” said Andrew Whitworth.

After Andy Dalton threw interceptions on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter, the Bengals trailed 10-6 with 6:27 remaining.

“Andy said, ‘The next time we get the ball we’re going to score,’” said Whitworth. “He believed that and I think we all felt that. We really felt like, ‘Hey, if the defense makes another stop, we’ll drive back down there and try it again.’”

“That’s what the defense is supposed to do,” said Nelson. “Get the ball back to Andy and let him go to work.”

Two plays after Dalton’s second INT, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass, escaped a near-sack by Pat Sims, rolled to his left, pointed down field, and finally – after holding the ball for 9.65 seconds – fired a pass in the direction of fullback Will Johnson. Third year safety Shawn Williams leaped in front of Johnson and made his first career interception at the Pittsburgh 45 yard line.

Williams INT

“There was an opportunity to make a play and that’s what I did to put our team in the best position to win the game,” said Williams.

“That was an unbelievable play,” said Clint Boling. “To see it on the replay screen – I really don’t know how he did it.”

“I’m not sure if he’ll ever have an interception that was tougher,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “A full dive where he caught the back half of the football and stayed in bounds as he went to the ground. Any of the great Pro Bowl receivers would take that catch.”

“I’m just happy for him because I know how I felt when I got my first career interception,” said fellow safety George Iloka. “It’s like a weight off of your shoulder. It’s like, ‘Man. If I end my career tomorrow, at least I can tell my kids about that.’”

Williams’ INT led to the Bengals only touchdown – a nine yard strike from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green that gave Cincinnati its first lead of the game with 2:57 remaining.

“Shawn made an unbelievable play to turn the game for us and you have to look at what a true team is,” said Whitworth. “When you collect wins, it really isn’t about your best players playing great every week; there’s always that guy who plays a role and steps up and makes a huge play and turns the tide for you.”

“He made the biggest play of his career at the most significant time to make it,” said Lapham.

Nelson INT

But the Bengals safeties weren’t finished. On the Steelers next offensive play, Reggie Nelson came up with his second interception of the game to set up a Mike Nugent field goal with 1:47 remaining. That gave the Bengals a 16-10 lead and meant that the Steelers could not force overtime by driving for a field goal on their last possession.

“Shawn’s pick was more important than my picks,” said Nelson. “He gave us momentum near the end and that’s what we needed.”

The Steelers had a shot at a game-winning touchdown with 4 seconds left from the Bengals 16 yard line, but Nelson did a good job in zone coverage of defending Antonio Brown and Roethlisberger’s final pass sailed through the back of the end zone.

“It feels great man,” said Nelson. “Defense wins games. We always preach that.”

“You just have to continue to play until the whistle blows and all of the time runs off the clock,” said Williams. “That’s what we did.”

The Bengals started three safeties on Sunday. Nelson, Iloka, and Williams combined for 10 tackles, four passes defensed, and three interceptions.

“The safeties came through today and that’s good,” said Nelson.

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Green Without Envy

Keyshawn Johnson’s biography, written after his rookie year, was named “Just Give Me the Damn Ball.”

Before facing the Bengals last week, Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins griped that a lack of passes thrown in his direction was making him look bad.

Green taking field

It got me thinking…has A.J. Green ever complained about not getting the ball enough?

“No, because my numbers are going to come,” said Green. “All we are about is winning here and whatever I can do to help the team win is what I’m going to do.”

“We’ve discussed why the ball went somewhere else, but that’s just normal coaching,” said receivers coach James Urban,” “But no, he’s never complained.”

“Everybody understands that we have a certain chemistry here,” said Marvin Lewis. “Hopefully we continue to check egos when they walk into this building. It’s not about them, it’s about winning and our guys understand that.”

It helps that the most talented guy on the roster might be the most humble.

“Obviously I’ve watched him as a fan before I got here and I’ve known how big of a freak he is on the field,” said linebacker A.J. Hawk. “And then to get here and see how much of a professional he is and how he carries himself – I think we all know that’s not always the case. Especially when it comes to receivers. That’s a position where a lot of times if guys feel like they’re not getting enough balls or are not involved enough, they can sometimes be a problem to the team. I’ve never heard him complain or say anything bad about anybody. I just watch him work day in and day out. When a guy like A.J. Green who is one of the premier receivers in the league carries himself like that, it trickles throughout the whole room and throughout the whole team.”

“I’ve always said this about A.J.: When the alpha dog does and says things the right way, then everybody else does it that way,” said Urban. “He shows up on time, he works hard, and he does all the things you’re supposed to do as a pro.”

Green game winning TD at Baltimore 2015

This year during training camp, former San Diego Chargers head coach Al Saunders worked with the Bengals as an additional offensive assistant and spent most of his time with the receivers. In his 30-plus years in the NFL, Saunders has worked with numerous Pro Bowlers including Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Anquan Boldin and says that Green is as good as anyone he’s ever coached.

“A.J. Green is a special, special player,” said Saunders. “The thing that separates the great players from the good players in this league are the intangibles. I had not been around A.J. other than evaluating him coming out of Georgia and watching him from afar as a competitor, but being around him in training camp, he’s able to take coaching extremely well from the classroom to the field. He’s an extremely dedicated player, it’s important to him, and he’s tremendous in the receiver meeting room. James Urban does a terrific job with those guys and A.J. is so receptive to what James says. A lot of times you get guys that have been to two or three Pro Bowls and they think they know a little bit more than the coach sometimes, but A.J. is not like that. A.J. does everything that James tells him to do and works hard at doing it. He spends time before and after practice on the field and spends extra time in the meeting rooms studying the game. He’s got character beyond reproach and he’s become one of my favorite players.”

Since Green never complains, I asked him if he cringes when he hears other receivers around the league moan and groan about not getting the ball enough.

“Everybody is different,” A.J. told me. “In our situation we’re winning and nothing beats winning. You can’t look at other guys. I can control what I can do here. And that’s to go ahead and make plays whenever my number is called.

“I view myself as one of the leaders and you can’t show emotion if you’re not getting the ball and the team is up by 21 points. That’s just not being a good teammate and I pride myself in being a good teammate and just making the most of my opportunities.”

“Everything is we, us, and our,” said Urban. “That’s all we care about. How did we do? What did we do as a receiver group to contribute? That’s all we ever talk about.”

AJ Green diving catch (440x309)

Green is currently on a pace to finish with 93 receptions this season. If he can increase that slightly and finish the year with 98 or more, he’ll have the most receptions ever by a player in his first five NFL seasons.

“I don’t care what my numbers are,” said Green. “As long as we keep winning, that’s all that matters.”

“He has no ego, but he has a great deal of pride in his ability to perform,” said Saunders. “He is an exceptional professional and I really can say nothing but superlatives about him and what his career is going to be like there in Cincinnati. And it’s fortunate for the fans to have a guy like A.J. to watch every week. What a great thrill that is.”

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Another Step Up The Mountain

Three times in 48 years.

Bernard smile

That’s how rare 6-0 starts have been in Cincinnati Bengals history, but after equaling the franchise record for best start with a 34-21 win in Buffalo, the players and coaches were not exactly thumping their chests.

“A miniscule part of history,” said Marvin Lewis. “We’ve got bigger things to do.”

“Obviously 6-0 is a cool little accomplishment, but I don’t want this to be the highlight of my season,” said George Iloka.

“It’s just another step along the way,” said Andrew Whitworth. “You’re proud of the step, but there’s another step right in front of you that you have to go up.”

Sunday’s game did not start well for Cincinnati. When the Bills marched down the field to score a touchdown on their opening possession, it marked the first time all season that the Bengals trailed in the first quarter.

“It was like the first round of a boxing match and we got caught off guard,” said Iloka. “They came out swinging and they hit us in the mouth, but we licked out wounds and came back and responded. That’s what it’s all about.”

Hill TD at Buffalo

The response featured nearly everybody on the active roster. Eight players carried or caught the ball on offense and four of them scored touchdowns. Twenty were involved in tackles. The offensive line did not surrender a sack and the defensive line hit EJ Manuel seven times and sacked him twice.

“It was truly a team effort and took everyone today,” said Jeremy Hill. “Everyone made plays and it really started with our offensive line. They played their butts off against that defensive line. They probably won’t get the credit that they deserve but they really played their butts off.”

The offensive line gave Andy Dalton abundant time to throw, and the Red(hot) Rifle was outstanding for the sixth consecutive game. His passer rating for the season is 116.1. Only Tom Brady is better at 118.4.

“If there’s a play in the playbook that exists, I don’t know if we don’t have it,” said Whitworth. “The coolest thing about Andy is that nothing is out of the realm of him being able to do at any point at the line of scrimmage. The guy is so cerebral and so intelligent. He can handle all of that stuff and put people in the right spots and make the checks and do all that. It’s one of those things that if you’ve got the talent around him and they play well, he’s going to put you in a good position.”

“Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense has an answer to everything that these defensive coordinators are trying to do,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham.

Since the NFL adopted its current playoff format in 1990, there were 31 teams entering this year that had opened a season 6-0. Fifteen of those 31 teams – or 48% – advanced to the Super Bowl.

That’s where this team is trying to get to. And a 6-0 start is only a small step on the road toward Santa Clara.

“We haven’t clinched our division, we’ve haven’t earned a first round bye, we haven’t really done anything,” said Hill. “So we have a lot of work to do, but it’s definitely a good start.”

“We set out with the intent of doing something special and until we have that, none of this really means that much,” said Whitworth. “Football is a mountain climb and every step will be a harder step to take. The next team we play will fight that much harder to not let us say that we’re a 7-0 team. So we’re coming out and continuing to play well, but it’s where can we get better? Where can we continue to grow? If we can keep that as our focus, we have the talent to do something really special.”

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