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Cedric Benson

This is what head coach Marvin Lewis was talking about the day this schedule came out. Even before Houston native Andy Dalton was his quarterback and Johnathan Joseph was a Texan.

Three of the last four games at Paul Brown Stadium.

And whether it is Jon Kitna, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Carson Palmer as his quarterback, Lewis has found a way to win in December at home.

His clubs are 12-5 at PBS in December and have won eight of their last nine. Five of those have featured 100-yard games by running back Cedric Benson. The only December game the Bengals have lost at home since Shayne Graham knocked them out of the 2006 playoffs with a 39-yard field goal miss on the last snap of regulation in the season finale was a last-minute loss last year to the defending Super Bowl champion Saints.

Four games left.

His team is one of five at 7-5 vying for the AFC's final Wild Card spot.

Three at home.

Don't you think Lewis would have taken that back when the schedule came out? Even before A.J. Green was a Bengal, Palmer a Raider, Chad Ochocinco a Patriot, and T.J. Yates a Texan?

"There is no distance," Lewis said Monday of his team and the Raiders, Jets, Titans and Broncos. "So we have to, and we have been approaching it that way. We have to approach it that way as we put things together. We have to approach it and go out and play that way. We have to make play calls that way. That puts you where you want to be. That way there is no change, and you don't need to have any change."

But that is this week's question.

Just how far are the Bengals away from being a playoff team after the Steelers beat them every which way but up in Sunday's 35-7 outtake? Here come the AFC South-leading Texans for Sunday's 1 p.m. game at PBS and the Bengals have just one win over a winning team.

"That's not the question," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "The question is, 'Can we show up and play from ahead?' Because the difference is when you play elite teams, you can't play from behind. And all year long we've played from behind. I think we just haven't played well when we've played them. I don't know if it's (distance) as much as we haven't played well as a team against them."

The Bengals certainly didn't play well as a team the last time the Texans were here. Houston interrupted their 2009 AFC North title run with a 28-17 drill job and while the injured Matt Schaub is no longer the quarterback and the injured Mario Williams no longer the quarterback hunter, there are still plenty of Bengals-killers to go around. Tight end Owen Daniels had two touchdown catches that day against a secondary that had Joseph and Leon Hall. And wide receiver Jacoby Jones, the last man to return a punt for a touchdown against the Bengals before Antonio Brown did it in Pittsburgh last Sunday, also caught a touchdown pass.

And back in '09, Benson could manage just 44 yards on 16 carries against a defense that now has Wade Phillips and is ranked second in the NFL.

But Lewis has been stressing this season that the Bengals must worry about only themselves and not the other guy. And it has paid off in an improbable playoff run that has hidden the fact they are the youngest team in the AFC playing with rookies at the two most important positions of quarterback and wide receiver.

Whitworth is convinced Sunday's carnage is going to roll off the back of youth.

"I'm not worried about it," Whitworth said of a potential hangover from the season's worst game. "Maybe if we were a more (established) team. This is still a hungry team trying to prove itself. Let's not forget we're young with a lot of rookies. We have a lot of young players, a lot of first-time players. We're banged up; we still have a lot to prove. So our future is in front of us."

The future on Monday meant that the defense stayed later than usual. Defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said he also planned to come to work Tuesday on the off day "to put the fire out." He said that Lewis had kind of the same message after the defense played so badly in the preseason opener in Detroit.

"We're still a good defense," Rucker said. "We have to work out some things to get the job done."

Rucker then proceeded to spit out Nuke LaLoosh's list of clichés. Who wants it more? Who's going to dig deepest? Who's going to make the plays? But the difference in this playoff run is that Rucker smiled because he knew they were harmless clichés. In years past, more potent words were said but the actions proved to be as empty.

"We're fine. We're all mature professionals. We know what's at stake," Rucker said when he put away the list. "We have to go back to work like the first day of training camp and we will. We just have to lead."

Lewis is leading this week by speaking softly and not with a big stick. At least that's how he was Monday, when he vowed he would not throw any players "under the bus" while discussing the rout. Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell may have had no catches, but he liked their effort. Brandon Tate may have fumbled a kickoff, but he was thisclose to taking it all the way.

"Yeah. Kinder, gentler," agreed Caldwell with Lewis's approach this week. "He just told us it was a bad loss. We didn't want it to come out that way. It just counts for one loss. We know what happened out there. We knew we played a bad game. No need to beat a dead horse … he came at us a little softer today."

And the Bengals won't be the only team on the field Sunday with Dr. Phil issues. The Texans have been carrying around a crushing load of expectations for years now under head coach Gary Kubiak and they're trying to exorcise their demons by clinching their first division title with the rookie Yates at quarterback and Kubiak's 3-8 road record in December.

So Sunday's game may not be won by who plays best. But who doesn't play tighter than the other team. Dalton is 1-0 against fellow rookie QBs when the Bengals beat Blaine Gabbert in the fourth quarter in Jacksonville. Caldwell has no worries about Cincinnati's kid after Dalton had his least productive day of the season in Pittsburgh.

"Andy's a true professional; I think he'll bounce back," Caldwell said.  "It will be like we won the game last week. He never gets too down or too high. He stays middle ground. He stays even keel. He just wants to get better every day. He was the same Andy (Monday). Smile on his face. Saying, 'What's up?' "

Whitworth knows what's up.

"Can't play from behind," he said. "Especially against a team like Pittsburgh on the road."

But now the Bengals are home.

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