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Been there, done that

Posted Jan 1, 2014

In their first heavy day of preparation for Sunday's wild card game, the Bengals looked a little looser than the past two years.

Call it the tractor factor. As in a team gets so tight that you can't pull a pin out of the nerves with a tractor.

On Wednesday in their first heavy day of preparation for Sunday's 1 p.m. wild card game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Chargers, the Bengals had a much lower tractor factor than the previous two seasons. Maybe a little looser. Not tight, but not cocky. But just maybe a jolt of more confidence than the past two one-and-done postseasons.

Over here is 11-year veteran cornerback Terence Newman complaining about the music the kids listen to today. Over there is one of those kids, the newest Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict, or the next Ray Lewis as Marvin Lewis sees it. Burfict, sometimes wary of the media, is holding court for 15 minutes while recalling how the speed of the playoffs caught him flat-footed last year as a rookie. Over here is sack leader Wallace Gilberry chortling about how the Bengals love the nasty weather because they practice in it, the first of many mind games with the heated Chargers.   

Even the button-down Marvin Lewis, the 11-year Bengals head coach who Wednesday before practice delivered one of the more animated pressers of his administration that is still seeking its first playoff win. And if it's anybody that should have a high tractor factor it is Lewis.

On one hand he is the most successful coach in Bengals history. Only two other AFC coaches, New England's Bill Belichick and Baltimore's John Harbaugh, have been to four postseasons since 2009. But Lewis has also just moved past Norm Van Brocklin by three games into second place on the list of coaches who have coached the most regular-season games without a playoff win. Lewis (176) trails leader Jim Mora (231) and he's not looking to get any closer.

Is it more of an albatross than a hurdle, he was asked, and the notoriously combative Lewis laughed.

“I’m an Idaho State man. You’re really taxing me. It’s like anything else. You can sit and look at numbers on paper. You can derive anything you want from them," Lewis said. "You have to go win. Until you win, it gives people something to talk about and write about. That’s all. I just told our guys ‘Don’t worry about that.’ Some of them have been here one year, two years, three years, maybe. I said, ‘Don’t worry about that. You’ve got to play. What we did in San Diego doesn’t matter now. What we did out here doesn’t matter now. We’re starting from scratch. We’ve got to be the best team for the next five weeks and we’ll be fine.’ ”

Instead, he is talking about 8-irons. Lewis watched the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton Bengals shank one off the first tee in their first wild card game two years ago. Last year he saw them miss a five-footer on what would have been a great up and down out of the sand in their second wild card game. In the third one, he likes their experience.

"I think it bodes well. It’s a matter of understanding you’ve prepared to do this, you’ve been put into position to do this, you have the confidence to do this – let’s go do it," Lewis said. "You pull the 8-iron out the bag, go 168 yards and it will rest right there by the flag and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Even though he has performed the rarity of reviving a franchise twice, Lewis knows the first paragraph of his national bio is he has yet to win a postseason game despite his place as the NFL's most-tenured head coach next to Belichick. On Wednesday, he didn't even bristle.

"It can’t bother me," Lewis said. "It’s my goal. Not to win one (playoff game), but to win four.”

That would even his postseason record. It would also win the Super Bowl for the Bengals.

"I don't know if we're looser or whatever or if we're just older," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "The last two years we were as young as could be with a lot of our skilled players with A.J. and Andy and Marvin Jones so young. It's a totally different world now. We're more experienced and we're more established, more experienced. We're a good football team We feel confident. We've always respected teams, probably too much. At some point you have to be the team that gets that respect. We know that if we go out and play the way we know we can … ."

And going 8-0 at home while outscoring their opponents an average of 34-17 helps. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has been with Lewis every step of the way. If anyone besides the head coach has a pulse on the entire team, it's the special teams coach. He's felt the difference all season.

"We more confident. We've been through this before. I think everyone realizes the gravity of what we face," Simmons says. "We know San Diego is a good team with a great offense. They've got a winning record against winning teams (5-2). I don't think any team can function well when you're tight. We have to go lay it out there. Do what we did in critical games this year. We didn't play tight against New England. We didn't play tight against Green Bay. We didn't play tight in San Diego. This team feels confident where we are. We've got professional guys here that know what's at stake. They're not dumb."

They are also quite a mix. Newman is able to talk about playing a team in the playoffs after beating them in the regular season when he goes back to the 2007 season playing for the Cowboys.

"I remember playing the Giants. We swept them in the regular season and had a first-round bye and then they came in and beat us," Newman says. "So I don’t know if there’s really an advantage. Not to mention the fact that when you beat a team before, they understand that ‘hey, we owe them.’ At the same time, playing at home could be an advantage for us. But we beat them and they got hot going into the postseason; it’s going to be a tough team and everybody’s going to have to come ready to play."

Burfict is able to draw on last year's experience as a rookie, when the Bengals lost, 19-13, in Houston.

"It's a different speed of the game. It was kind of shocking for me to be in the playoffs my first year. Everything was going faster than me. I just had to adapt to it," Burfict says. "The first time I went out there in the playoffs I said, 'Man, everybody is fast, but I'm moving slow.' I understand it now. We have a lot of guys that understand how the playoffs work and hopefully we're ready for that Sunday."

Gilberry, a canny six-year veteran, has no doubt been looking at the weather. The National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, is calling for freezing temperatures at game time with a mix of snow and rain. The game should end in the upper 30s, but, at this early stage, forecasts are saying it's going to be wet.

"It’s a big difference. Cold weather teams play well in cold weather," Gilberry says. "You get a team like Miami or San Diego—from a place where the weather’s always nice—in this 20-degree weather, it’s a big difference on your body.”

As Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers pointed out in his Wednesday conference call with the Cincinnati media, San Diego has won in cold weather this year at 37-degree Denver and 24-degree Kansas City.

"I don’t think we’re spending much time checking out their weather forecast. We’ll go there and play in whatever conditions there are,” Rivers said.

Of course, the last time the highly-regarded Rivers played here it was the next-to-last game of the 2010 season and the Chargers needed a win over the 3-11 Bengals to avoid getting knocked out of the playoffs. Rivers played pretty well in 29 degrees (82.9 passer rating), but the Chargers could only score 20 points on a day the Bengals put up 34.

At the end of his call, Rivers asked how the weather was.

"We’re used to it. There is no (indoor practice facility)," Gilberry says. "When it rains, sleets or snows, we’re working. We love it, because come game day, it’s normal to us. It’s not like we have to prepare for it. It’s normal.”

It's a pretty good cross-section of what the Bengals had in mind when they re-signed 10 unrestricted free agents and paired them up with a young corps of players like Burfict. In the last three seasons the Bengals have been awarded 10 Pro Bowl berths. The only one more than 25 years old is the 32-year-old Whitworth. Newman and Gilberry are two of the six UFAs that are starters or regulars on defense.

Lewis usually stays clear of talking about ownership publicly, but on Wednesday he opened up in praise of Bengals president Mike Brown's efforts to keep this team intact.  

"Take your hat off to them for when we sat here with 21 or 22 free agents last year and signing our guys back that we said, ‘Let’s get these guys back.’ We signed every player that we wanted back," Lewis said, counting all the restricted free agents. "To that, you have to take your hat off to them. That speaks volumes for what we’ve done. While we’re sitting here with guys who are not playing, who are good players, who are on IR, who haven’t played. That’s why we signed those guys. That’s why we had those guys back."

Lewis said the anti-Mike Brown narrative is dog-eared, old and irrelevant.

"I think everybody has to understand that. All of the things that have been written, all of the time and the shots taken, that’s way in the past," Lewis says. "That’s way in the past. When other players from other teams walk in to this building they say, ‘Wow.’ These guys are well taken care of in every aspect of their day. This is a very well put together football organization. The players are well taken care of.”

It's not a swagger. But it is a feel-good week for a team from the front office on down that has put a lot of its eggs in Sunday's game.

“Like I said, they held us to 10 points last time, so we’re going to their place where we know they’re undefeated, so it’s going to take our best game of the year," Rivers said. "We’re out here right now preparing like crazy to do that in 75-degree weather.”

It seems the tractor factor doesn't mirror the thermostat.

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