With apologies to Robert Frost, two roads are diverged in a yellow and black wood for the 3-3 Bengals when they play the 2-3 Steelers next Sunday (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5), and that could make all the difference in the suddenly bogged down AFC where new life could be lurking around the corner for just about anyone.
The Bengals weren't the only team reeling Sunday night in the wake of their 34-24 loss to the winless Browns. While the 3-3 Patriots were done in by the 12th man in Seattle, the 5-1 Ravens lost The Man for the season when Ray Lewis tore his triceps and two future NFC East foes for the Bengals were getting ripped in their home markets of Dallas and Philadelphia for losses that dropped them to 2-3 and 3-3, respectively.
Two more future Bengals foes played Monday night and Denver's victory over San Diego put them both at 3-3 and gave the AFC seven 3-3 teams that trail only the 5-1 Ravens and Texans.
"We keep talking about parity; there's a lot of parity," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said Monday. "The good teams and bad teams are actually really close to each other. This is a situation where, if you look at it, the entire AFC really has an opportunity, if San Diego loses, to be 3-3 other than two teams. It's still anybody's season. It's basically like we're starting the season from scratch."
That was Monday's theme at PBS, where two of the more bitter losses in the 10 seasons of the Marvin Lewis era were still being swallowed. But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer reminded the players that while they are in deep, they are also still in the middle of the scrum.
"That's what Zimmer was telling us; even though we lost the last two, there's one positive," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "There are two 5-1 teams and then the rest of us are in the same kind of boat.
"There are some teams that have won five games and then there's the rest of them. We're still in it right now. We have to go out and get this win. It's a very important week and every time we have the black and yellow, it's a huge game for us. I know it's going to be really loud here. Sunday night game. We're going to bring our A game. We can't be half-stepping around here. We know that and we're going to fix it."
It's no secret the Bengals have more issues than a non-Jim Lehrer presidential debate. Start with a running game that has finished fewer than four yards per rush five of the previous six seasons no matter the back, and move to the ups and downs at No. 2 receiver and at safety, and the Bengals are trying to get some things fixed.
But, somehow, they are also still smack dab in the middle of it all with a victory Sunday night against the Steelers, a team that is going to be just as desperate trying to get into the 3-3 club at Cincinnati's expense.
Remember how the last 10 games were a buzzsaw in April? Now those foes are currently 26-30. Now the Bengals have three straight home games with a bye thrown in and six the rest of the way. The four clubs they have left on the road (Kansas City, San Diego, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) are 9-13.
"We let these two slip between our fingers," Peko said of the losses to the combined 1-8 Dolphins and Browns. "We can't let that happen anymore."
Last year, two teams made the playoffs starting 3-3, the Falcons and the Texans, and the Broncos made it starting 2-4.
Pie in the sky? Spin cycle?
"No. That's the truth. That's the reality that we're in," Whitworth said. "It's not time to jump ship. We're 3-3 just like everybody else in our conference. At the end of the day it's not about wins and losses, it's about who makes the playoffs. That's what you're playing football for. I'm not playing for the ego of telling people how many games we won or lost. I'm playing it to go make the playoffs and try and win a Super Bowl. That's what all of us are playing it for. Our goals are all still right there in front of us. Somebody that's 3-3 has to go win some games and get in the playoffs. Why not be us?"
In typical Lewis fashion, he's ignoring the standings and focusing on the mistakes that have put his team in this hole.
"We know we have a lot of football left to play, and a lot of ups and downs with it. We have to just focus on ourselves. That's important." Lewis said. "It's probably a good week for that. We have to go and just focus on ourselves and better ourselves internally, both coaches and players. We have to do a better job coaching. I have to do a better job coaching – a better job coaching the coaches and coaching the players. We have to eliminate any gray area for our guys so we can just get after it and pin our ears back and go throughout."
But in unMarv fashion he got his locker room riled when he said in the postgame the Bengals needed to play nastier and not be so nice.
"As a defensive player and a player in the NFL, you never want to be a nice player. Off the field, that's cool. But on the field … ," Peko said. "That stuff doesn't sit well with a lot of the guys. We take it as a challenge, and as motivation. We'll see how nice we are this weekend."
Peko thought back to just two weeks ago when the Bengals were coming off back-to-back six-sack games and cornerback Terence Newman cautioned parents to keep small children away from the ravenous defensive line.
"I think it's something to challenge us and it has because it's got us all talking in the D-line room like, 'Man, I'm not nice,' " Peko said.
"A couple of weeks ago Terence was talking about keeping kids away from us. But we'll take it as a challenge. I'm going to take it as a challenge I can't wait to go and prove it on Sunday night. Show how mean and aggressive and physical we are."
Peko says he knows where Lewis is coming from. The Bengals had a 6-0 lead on Miami that could have been 14-0 and they led the Browns, it seemed, forever, at 14-7 and 14-10 and could never make it a two-score game.
"He's just talking about finishing games. You get a team down … we have to learn to finish better," Peko said. "Like Miami and Cleveland, you can't let those teams hang around because it gives them confidence. They're the type of teams you've got to get up early on and keep them down. Step on the throat and finish the game off. I think that's what he's been talking about."
And Peko is right. Because Lewis, the Pittsburgh guy, knows exactly what is coming to town.
"You've got to be able to stomp on the back of somebody's neck and go. That's what this is all about. We don't get mulligans," Lewis said. "We are playing for lunch tickets, and we are playing for keeps. You've got to go when it is time to go, and you've got to put them away in every way.
"(The Steelers) are very seasoned that way. They have a very mature group that way, particularly on the defense. Throughout the football team, really. Their quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) is that way. Their guys are that way. They play for keeps."