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A race as tight as this


What the rest of the world is finding out about the AFC North George Iloka knew as a rookie.

Never has there been a race like this in the NFL as the four AFC North teams prepare to screech into December with mere percentage points separating them from the euphoria of a home playoff game and the oblivion of the 14th pick in the draft.

The 7-3-1 Bengals, their fans, the pundits and the wise guys all can figure that a 3-2 finish probably gets them into their fourth straight playoffs. Which puts Sunday's game in Tampa (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the 2-9 Buccaneers somewhere between must and absolute.

Not only would a win Sunday guarantee a franchise first fourth straight winning season and keep them in first place in a division separated by a half game, it would also mean a 2-2 split of a very tough December probably makes Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco of the Ravens the only two quarterbacks to reach the playoffs in their first four seasons in the NFL.

With the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all at 7-4 and joining the Bengals in a 1 p.m. game, there is going to be plenty of scoreboard watching Sunday.

Only if there's not.

Cleveland is in Buffalo. Baltimore hosts San Diego. New Orleans goes to Pittsburgh.

"The only scoreboard we're going to look at is our score," says Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap. "After we get out of the shower, we'll check. Or at the end of the game when it comes across. But during the game we're not really focused on that. We're focused on what we've got going on."

Safety George Iloka says the only time he's been tempted to look at the scoreboard came last year when the Bengals were trying to clinch the division and needed some help.

"It's nothing like that now," Iloka said. "There's no separation."

Which is the way head coach Marvin Lewis likes it.  No help needed.

"We just need to continue to unfold," Lewis said. "It's always going to work out the way it's going to work out. We just have to do our thing and worry about us. Everybody is not going to win the games everybody expects them win."

In the end, Lewis isn't sure if his scoreboard watching would do his team any good.

"I don't know if too many of them can figure out that stuff anyway," Lewis said with a laugh. "They're such a day-to-day operation."

And then there are guys like left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

"Heck, I don't know what our record is. You really don't have time to think about that kind of stuff," Whitworth says. "You watch if the people in your division win or lose each week, but I don't really know what any of their records are, if they're a game back or something."

Of course, this is nothing new for any of these guys even if the rest of the world is just discovering the strength of the AFC North.

In Iloka's rookie year, he participated in the 2012 Wild Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh, when the winner went to the playoffs and the losers went golfing. And the Ravens ended up winning the Super Bowl. In the first year of the Green-Dalton Bengals in 2011, with help after a Bengals loss to Baltimore, three of the teams made the playoffs but none went to the Super Bowl. In '06, Whitworth saw a playoff berth run away in overtime in the person of Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes as both teams finished 8-8 and out of it.

And then there is Lewis, who officially has coached for all four franchises.

He was coaching the Steelers linebackers in '95 when a Thursday night blowout loss to the 2-4 Bengals ignited a Super Bowl run that included erasing a 31-10 lead in Cincinnati five weeks later to help send the Bengals to 7-9. After he moved with the Browns to Baltimore, Lewis coordinated a Ravens defense that unseated AFC champion Tennessee in 2000. Then as the head coach of Cincinnati, the Bengals won a division by sweeping it (2009) but still needed to eke out a fourth-quarter win over Kansas City in their last home game.

"I think it's always been a difficult division. In the 22 of my 23 years it's been that way," said Lewis, who spent a year in the NFC East with Washington. "It's always been that way and this year it's played out a little stronger."

In the end, the Bengals have the ultimate destiny in their own hands. They're the only AFC North team that plays three division games in December. But then, these guys knew what they signed up for.

"Honestly, every year we hear people sit up here and say the AFC North is one of the most physical divisions. I think sometimes we haven't performed as a division outside the division as well as people expected," Whitworth said. "We kind of let down against some of those teams. But this year is one of those years that I don't think is any different…all of them have a chance to beat anybody every week and this year, we're doing it. We're performing outside the division and winning games."

Ever since the loss to Cleveland on Nov. 6, Lewis has passed the word. No more mulligans.

"We can't just have any redos. We can't afford to have games where we left it on the field and we should have won that. There's no more of that," Iloka said. "Every game is proving to be important. Especially in this division…Everyone is still in the thick of things, and we'll still have three more against division opponents. So we can control our own destiny if we do what we have to do."

The rest of the world is just starting to catch up.

"No margin of error. Especially in this division," Iloka said. "Marvin's been preaching that since the day I got here."

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