With a hot December beckoning, the 7-4 Bengals need all the healthy bodies they can get for their last five games in a stretch drive that begins Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in San Diego.
Nickel back Chris Crocker (hamstring), one of 10 Bengals on the roster trying to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years, is one of those when he came back from the bye Monday and practiced. He smells it, but it's a different aroma this time around.
It's not 2009, when the Bengals had a surprising division sweep that put them in the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
"Going to the playoffs was gravy," Crocker said.
It's not like 2011, when wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton secured a stunning rookie wild-card berth. And it's not like 2012, when a 7-1 finish gave the Bengals back-to-back postseason berths for the first time in three decades.
"Obviously, you want to win when you get to the playoffs, but the onus was on so many other things. Now this year it's about winning," Crocker said after Monday's practice. "That's the cloud that hangs over the top of us. That dark cloud is like, 'Alright, we have the talent to get to the postseason, now can we win?'
"You look around the locker room and we understand we have a legitimate chance to go to the postseason, but for me I'm trying to win out these last five games so we can get a first-round bye."
"We could be undefeated," Crocker said of four losses by a combined 20 points. "But the ball didn't bounce that way."
When this past Sunday's frigid slate of games finally thawed out at after midnight at the end of New England's freeze-dried comeback in Foxboro, the Bengals were within a game of the Patriots and the AFC's second seed but only two games up on the 5-6 Steelers and Ravens in the AFC North.
And the Bengals leave Friday for a date with the NFL's hottest quarterback in his own habitat when they try to beat San Diego's Philip Rivers for the second straight year at Qualcomm Stadium. With Rivers off his record-tying fourth 390-plus-yard game of the season, his NFL's No. 7 offense poses the Bengals defense's first test since it lost for the season cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) and tackle Geno Atkins (ACL) last month.
"We're not the 4-7 team or the 5-6 team; we're the 7-4 team," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "For some reason, everybody here wants to make it flip the other way. But we're 7-4 and if we take care of our business we'll get to where we want to be. It's still the-ball-is-in-your-court."
That was head coach Marvin Lewis's message to his team before Monday's practice: block out the standings. Forget the other teams. Ignore the records.
Never mind after all the ink has been spilled and the sound bites have gone hoarse about how Cincinnati's time is over and yet Baltimore and Pittsburgh are still alive as those two teams head into what amounts to the AFC North's Elimination Game with the Steelers in Baltimore on Thanksgiving Night.
Forget that the 6-6 winner is going to be putting serious heat on the Bengals with Cincinnati headed to its own prime-time North showdown Dec. 15 in a Sunday night game in Pittsburgh, before wrapping up the season Dec. 29 at PBS against the Ravens.
Ignore that the Bengals got a lift from an old friend Sunday when Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer ridded the Colts early and often in a rout in Arizona that left the Colts tied with the Bengals at 7-4 for the AFC's second seed, a game behind New England's 8-3. That makes the Bengals Dec. 8 game at PBS against the Colts absolutely huge as Cincinnati bids for the same tiebreaker advantage it has over the Pats with a head-to-head win.
"Pittsburgh won and Baltimore won, too, right?" asked defensive tackle Domata Peko. "We can't worry too much about them. We just have to focus on ourselves. That's what Coach was talking about today. We were able to look at ourselves a little bit more and get a head start on San Diego. I think we're in a good spot. We just have to take care of business. Don't worry about other teams. Let's just worry about ourselves. If we start thinking about other teams we'll lose focus on what we have to do. Keep winning and we'll be in the perfect situation. We have to make sure we handle our business in San Diego. Another big game in the AFC for us because they're still in it."
Lewis probably liked how cornerback Adam Jones handled the bye week, which started on Wednesday for the players. Jones studied the Chargers on his iPad Thursday and Friday, but didn't watch games Sunday.
"Why?" Jones asked. "It doesn't matter who won and who lost yesterday. No matter what happens, it's on us."
Numbers? Dalton is 4-1 on the road in December, 6-4 in December overall. Lewis is 24-23 overall in December, 9-13 on the road. Since Crocker arrived in '08, the Bengals are 13-7 in December overall.
And those 10 guys from '09 lived the bitter disappointment of a last-second loss in San Diego in Week 15 that knocked them out of a shot at a playoff bye.
"It's about winning in December, so let's just win it out," Crocker said. "We've always been a good team in December. When I talk about the postseason, I don't want to jump ahead because these five games are really important. It really sets us up for the postseason.
"I think the guys have the same mindset as me: let's win out and let's see where the chips lay. Why can't we win out? I don't see why we can't. We face good teams. We still have Pittsburgh and Baltimore in our division. Tough games. San Diego is not going to be a walkthrough. It's a West Coast trip. But we can win."