Updated: 6:10 p.m.
The two guys who have been along for all of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's four postseason rides, the man himself and left end Robert Geathers, aren’t looking back into the archives with the smoke still rising over the Heinz Field trenches and Sunday's 13-10 heavyweight victory over the Steelers that put the Bengals into the playoffs for the third time in four years.
"We're a different team; we believe we're good," Geathers said Monday after Lewis met briefly with the team Christmas Eve. "It's a different feel. It's not the same. Everybody has bought into what we're doing."
Lewis sensed it in the Heinz locker room after it was over Sunday. He hated the division-clinching show in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2005, complete with the dastardly AFC North Champions hats, and the giddiness of the 2009 sweep.
"That was a different locker room yesterday. It wasn't a locker room that was giddy about anything," Lewis said. "There's work ahead. One of the things is done. Move on to some other things we haven't accomplished."
On one side, Lewis likes that experience up front on both sides of the ball that have been here for three playoff berths in four years: Geathers,
But he also likes the fact the bulk of them still remember the sting of last year's loss in Houston, how they looked at each other and knew how much they would have to improve to even get back.
“In ’05 it was like that wasn’t really the prize. That scene in Detroit, my point was we weren’t there yet," said Lewis, who did the real Super Bowl celebration with the Ravens in 2000. "When you’ve been beyond that you realize there are bigger fish to fry. I think our group understands this now. Appreciate it, feel good about it, celebrate it but realize what it took to get there and that it takes more because now we’re going to pare it down again."
After living through what amounted to byes in the regular-season finales of 2005 and 2009 heading into the AFC Wild Card game, Lewis sounded like he'll play Sunday's finale against the AFC North champion Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium straight up with his regulars.
Vets like Geathers and Peko agree.
"It's up to the head coach, but I like the idea of keep the momentum going. I think that's important for us to keep the momentum rolling," Geathers said. "We're catching it at just the right time. That's what teams that make runs do: they get it together at just the right time and carry it on into the playoffs."
The Bengals had to play it out last year because they needed to beat the Ravens in the season finale at PBS to get into the playoffs for sure. They didn't but got in with help. But in '05 with their place set, the Bengals sat down quarterback Carson Palmer after two series in a 37-7 loss in Kansas City in the last game.
Lewis tried to play it out more in the '09 finale against a Jets team at home that had to win and a Bengals team that didn't. This time, Palmer lasted until early in the third quarter, but the 37-0 loss was even uglier.
With just 72 total yards the Bengals set a record for fewest yards in a game (83) previously set in Houston on Halloween 1971. And they suffered their first shutout since Lewis’s Baltimore defense beat them 16-0 on Dec. 23, 2001.
Now, asked if he's tempted to rest players like he did those seasons, Lewis asked, "How did that work out for us?"
Not well. They were ousted the next week.
But the one big difference? The defense is playing at its highest level under Lewis. Certainly heading into the postseason. In this 6-1 stretch the Bengals are allowing just 12 points per game, 95.5 rushing yards, and have held foes to 29-of-94 on third down. Compare that to '05 when they gave up 74 points in their last two games and Kansas City's Larry Johnson rushed for 201 yards in the finale. Or '09, when the Bengals allowed 257 yards rushing in the finale to the Jets.
"That's something good to have, man, especially in the playoffs. You want to have that good defense," Peko said. "We've just got to keep it rolling. Like you said, in '09 when we used to have that high-powered offense with (Chad Johnson), things are changing, man. It's about defense now around here. Our defense has really stepped it up and that's what you want to do. You want to have a great defense when you're trying to make a Super Bowl run."
There's a sense of change because it's the best closing run heading into the regular-season finale in Lewis's 10 seasons. At 6-1, only the 5-2 of '05 compares. At 3-1 the Bengals could have their best December of any of the previous playoff runs with a win over Baltimore. Heading into the '05 playoffs they were 3-2 in December but lost the last two. In '09 they were 2-3, losing the last three of four. And last year, when the Bengals had to beat the Ravens to make sure they got in the playoffs in the finale, a loss to Baltimore put them at 2-3 for December.
"The difference with us and last year -- I think in December, November last year, we were kind of out of balance a little bit," Peko said. "This year we started a little slower but now we're starting to take off. Those are the teams that are dangerous, like Seattle, they've been doing their thing and kind of sneaking into the playoffs or whatnot. That's just like us -- we want to be one of those teams on the rise in the playoffs, one of those games you don't want to play."
Peko is all for Lewis wanting to go for it Sunday. He remembers how a knee injury took him out of December in '09 and he came back cold in the Wild Card game.
"I think we're just going to do whatever the coaches want us to do. As far as me, I just want to keep playing. I don't want to not play and get rusty or whatnot," Peko said. "We should just keep playing, is what I think, and go out there and keep getting better. Each game is a chance to get better, especially against Baltimore. They're a hell of a team and they're in the playoffs also, so this will be a good test for us to go out there and get the job done."
Another reason Lewis is prepared to play the finale out is what happened in that 44-13 opener on Monday night 85 days ago Baltimore. It still doesn't sit well. Asked if he's got that in his mindset, he said, "There’s a lot in my mindset this week. We didn’t kick the season off very good, and now we get to finish it at home."
In Baltimore on Monday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh made it sound like he, too, is going to go all out Sunday at PBS. The thinking is the Ravens want to win so they have a shot at the third seed and playing the Bengals again in Baltimore on Wild Card Weekend. But Harbaugh did say he'd have to think about resting some people, and he does have a battered roster.
“It’s definitely a consideration. The biggest thing is that you can’t play this game half-speed. You have to play this game full-speed," Harbaugh said. "Our guys are going to play the game full-speed to win the game. How that type of thing would shake out is definitely a consideration, but I would expect it to be a tight game all the way through. These are two evenly-matched teams, and it’s going to be a highly-competitive game. So, I haven’t really thought along those lines right now.”
But Lewis knows the score. His club needs a playoff win. Beating arch-nemesis Pittsburgh on the road to go back-to-back is just half the deal.
"Now we’ve erased two of the monkeys (off the back). We’ve got two more to erase, and we’re going to work hard these next six weeks to erase those too," Lewis said of winning a playoff game and then a Super Bowl.
At this past NFL scouting combine, Lewis expressed frustration at the elusive postseason win. He's third on the list for most regular-season games coached without a playoff win (160) behind Jim Mora (231) and Norm Van Brocklin (173). On Monday, he says that win is still on his mind.
"It’s something, you do this in order to win a championship. You can’t win a championship until you win a playoff game. So that’s important. Now we’re in the tourney and we’ve got to go from there," Lewis said.