Another underdog day

Posted Nov 5, 2009

Palmer led the Bengals to a last-minute victory over the Ravens on Oct. 11.

Posted: 5:50 a.m.

Just another day at The Office.

Here are the Bengals, undefeated in the AFC North with a win over the Ravens on the road just 25 days ago and one of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL with seven wins against Baltimore who is still cool enough with his teammates to roll up his shirt sleeves like Dwight Schrute.

And they are still underdogs at home against said Ravens in Sunday’s 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium.

“Yeah. I’m a little surprised. I didn’t know it, but I don’t care, either,” Carson Palmer said at his Wednesday news conference.

Here is Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, with an average of nearly five catches per game for 15.3 yards per catch against these Ravens in 17 games, saying and doing all the right things in a week he dropped in on offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski during his Tuesday night off to discuss the game plan. And yet the Ravens are favored by three in most circles even though their best receiver didn’t have a catch against the Bengals last month.

“I like it. I like flying under the radar,” The Ocho said. “We have to earn our respect. We’ve won some late games. That might be the reason we’re still the underdog right now because we’re not putting up 40 a game.”

Here is Rey Maualuga, the exciting rookie linebacker who helped the Bengals hold Baltimore’s high-flying offense to one touchdown last month and is now preparing for a game in which each team is expected to go back to its X-and-O roots.

And he’s talking about how much he admires Ray Lewis and his Ravens linebackers, the linchpins of a defense that throttled Denver last week in a game that is probably the main reason the oddsmakers are going with Baltimore. 

“Nobody knows about us,” said Maualuga of his own linebackers that have been a big part of the Bengals’ quiet No. 5 rank against the run. “This is a perfect game to make a name for ourselves.”

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis couldn’t have asked for better odds. He has painstakingly pounded into his players that they are overlooked and under loved and the us-against-them mentality has struck a chord on a roster where a miniseries cast of players has either been injured (Palmer), ignored (Maualuga), or in exile (Cedric Benson).

Now that the Bengals are 5-2 and in first place and still not favored fits right into Lewis’ scenario.

“It doesn’t bother me. I prefer it. I think a lot of people don’t believe in us yet. They don’t think we’re over that hump yet,” said wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who got his team over it in Baltimore with a touchdown catch with 22 seconds left. “They think we just won a couple of games late and it’s a fluke.

“But what we’ve got here is 53 guys in the locker room that know we can do it. I know it because of how hard we work. I always remember what Coach (Urban) Meyer taught me (at Florida): Make practice so hard during the week that the game is easier than the practice.”

Setting the tone for it all is Palmer with his aw-shucks confidence on and off the field. No one really wants to try and explain his success against one of the NFL’s perennial top defenses.

Bratkowski shook his head after Wednesday’s practice and said, “Listen, every inch you gain against Baltimore is hard. They are a good defense. You have to fight, scrap, dig, claw for everything you get. And Carson plays with a lot of confidence against them. He understands what they’re trying to do.”

The numbers are there. Palmer is 7-3 against Baltimore with three of those wins coming in fourth-quarter rallies. He’s got an 87.9 career mark against a defense where passer ratings go to die.

“I actually wasn’t aware of that,” Palmer said of the success. “We’ve always had good game plans against them. We’ve matched up pretty favorably against them. I think because Marvin was there and he won a Super Bowl, Baltimore week is always a real big deal. We have so much respect for them. We look at them as one of the best teams in the league and definitely one of the best defenses in the league. We know we have to be on our ‘A’ game. We know we’ve got to play great. We know one little mistake can lose a game in an instant, because they capitalize so well on mistakes.

“It’s probably those factors, but mainly the respect for the organization. It’s one of the best in all of sports, the way they draft and the way they take care of their players, and their coaching is always great. So you’ve got to play really well to beat these guys.”

Palmer doesn’t exactly lead a romper room locker room, but they know when to cut up and when to go back to business. The quarterbacks’ highly competitive game of throwing accuracy  during Friday’s practices have led to some outrageous scenes.

For instance, after Palmer’s brother Jordan lost a game, he had to dress for a road trip like a fool recently. Which meant he made the trip to Baltimore wearing skin-tight sky blue pants complete with a grade-school suit coat. He also had to show up once dressed like 340-pound right guard Bobbie Williams for a walkthrough, right down to the big shoes and hiked-up shorts.

No one is immune. Not even Carson.

When he lost a game, he had to go on the Cleveland trip dressed like Dwight Schrute, the social skill-less salesman on the TV show The Office. But Jordan complained that Carson could rarely be seen in the white short-sleeve button-down shirt because he spent the trip hiding behind Williams and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

“Wouldn’t you if you were dressed like Dwight Schrute?” Palmer asked. “I didn’t have any of that stuff. Jordan provided the clothes and I wore them.”

On Wednesday, Ochocinco called Palmer over to his locker for a joint news conference. When The Ocho just gave the straight party line, Palmer kidded him by leaving and saying he wasn’t controversial enough. 

“He’s changed his approach to the media,” Palmer said later. “He has his own news network now, which is a big deal. I’m sure you guys love that. But yeah, he’s very politically correct. It’s a nice change, but it’s also nice to hear the old Chad every once in a while, and I’m sure we’ll get to that point sometime this year.”
So while it may be a loose locker room, the all-business approach of Lewis is never far behind. He put a new clock back in the locker room this week that counts down to the game by days, hours, minutes and seconds. Complete with a Ravens logo.

Bratkowski wasn’t so much surprised that The Ocho dropped in for a late night visit Tuesday. He used to do that all the time as a younger player, but it is something he hasn’t done the last couple of years.

“I think he’s just realizing this is fun and that you’re not always going to have football,” Bratkowski said.

The Ravens are still favored, though, after ending their three-game losing streak last week against Denver, 30-7, in a performance that was every bit as impressive as the Bengals 45-10 win over the Bears. 

“We set ourselves up for that,” Palmer said. “When you win four games the year before, people don’t expect you to be on top of your division, and to beat a team that went to the AFC Championship game last year, back-to-back times. I’m sure that has something to do with it. But I could care less whether we’re over-looked or under-looked. At the end of the year, if you’re playing in the Super Bowl, people think you’re pretty good. And you are pretty good if you make it that far. That’s our goal.”

Or, as left end Robert Geathers said, “We like it. We like being the underdog. Who cares what the gurus say?”

It is shaping up to be a guru game, though, where the teams are going to go back to do what they do best. The Bengals offense has noticed that against Denver the Ravens pressured the quarterback more than they did against the Bengals last month and they expect some of that because the Ravens had so much success against the Broncos.

“They were coming off a bye week and they were definitely working on some things,” Whitworth said. “Different styles. Different lineups. They threw in some new wrinkles. They brought a lot more pressure against Denver. I think they just figured they’ve got the talent and the ability and they’re going to get a little more aggressive with teams.

“In the beginning of the season, what you’re used to with Baltimore and Rex Ryan, last year and the years before, they brought (the pressure) a lot more often against us. This year, not as much. Any defense goes off what they’re good at. Last week they had a lot of success bringing a lot of pressure.”

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer noticed the same thing on offense, where the Ravens rolled to last year’s AFC championship game behind a punishing running game. Denver got a pretty good dose of running back Ray Rice and not as much Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

“They can still throw it,” Zimmer said, “but I think any time a team isn’t winning, they go back to some of the things they do really well, what they do best. And they run the ball well.”




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