Updated: 11/29/11, 1:15 a.m. If there is one thing that has separated these Bengals from those Bengals as they begin another December playoff push under head coach Marvin Lewis, it is their stunning reversal in crunch time.
Before this season in the 130 games under Lewis, the Bengals had erased fourth-quarter deficits to post wins 14 times. After Sunday's fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, the 2011 Bengals have nearly halved it with five games to play.
The team that used to be known for finding ways to lose has finally listened to Lewis and simply finds a way.
"We have a lot of guys in this locker room that want all the heat on them and want to take on all the biggest challenges," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who can remember when the big play was a rare play. "They don't want the attention. They don't want the media. They don't want any of that. They want the opportunity to win a game.
"We know whoever it is that has to go make the next play for us to win is going to make it and we don't have any doubt in that."
With 103 fourth-quarter points, the Bengals have already scored as many or more points in the final 15 minutes than in six of Lewis's previous eight seasons and they are just 16 points from topping the high of 116 set last season and in 2006.
And it's just not the offense. By allowing no touchdowns in the second half of four games, the Bengals are on pace to give up just 77 points in the fourth quarter, two better than the lowest under Lewis, the 79 of 2009.
It is a huge trend-changer. Since 2003, the Bengals have outscored their foes in the last quarter twice, by three points in 2004 and four points in 2006. With a gamebreaking 53-point pad in the fourth quarter, the 2011 Bengals have left no doubt they are Lewis's toughest team in the clutch.
And it has spilled over into the entire second half, where the Bengals have a commanding 166-86 edge. The Bengals have outscored their foes in the second half in three of the previous eight seasons and are now on pace to score 241 points, well beyond the high of 197 in 2004. They are just three Mike Nugent field goals from tying the 175 second-half points of last year's team.
Lewis preaches to his team about never flinching and he never flinched Monday at his news conference when asked why.
"I think it's tougher-minded people that are more talented. That's a pretty good combination," he said. "I think it's ability. Condition-wise, we've always been a good, conditioned group. I don't think we've done anything considerably different that way. I think this group approaches it very professionally. They know what it means and they know that's part of who we are, and we can't neglect that. I think their approach to it has been consistent and good."
The talent is headlined by the rookie duo of gamebreaking wide receiver A.J. Green and the killer cool of the "The Red Baron," Andy Dalton, the bloodless pilot at the center of the Bengals last-minute air duels.
Two of Green's six touchdown catches have come in the fourth quarter and his 51-yard leaper Sunday with a minute left might as well have been. Dalton may have a lower fourth-quarter passer rating than Tyler Palko and Blaine Gabbert with his three touchdown passes and six interceptions, but only Tom Brady and Philip Rivers have thrown for more yards.
"A.J.," says Whitworth with a smile, "is that guy that you've always got a shot. He goes up and gets it."
And it's just not those guys. Wide receiver Andre Caldwell has two TD catches in the last quarter and tight end Jermaine Gresham has three of his five touchdown catches in the second half, along with three huge conversions in winning fourth quarters.
Gresham made one against Buffalo in the drive for the tying touchdown and he made one Sunday against the Browns on third-and-eight that led to the tying field goal. His nine-yard grab on fourth-and-six at the Jacksonville 10 with 3:15 left set up the go-ahead touchdown.
And his leaping grab on a 22-yard fade route Sunday for a touchdown late in the third quarter cut the lead to 20-17 when he split out like a wide receiver and fried the safety one-on-one.
"That's what we're starting to see. Some of these guys are really willing to go up and make some plays," Whitworth said. "Jermaine Gresham really made a great one to get us back in it and there's another young guy. A just-give-me-the-rock-I'll-make-something happen kind of guy. ... We've got guys that are stepping in there saying, 'Give me a chance to make the play for us,' and it's very promising."
The clutch play has eluded a team that has played so close to the margin under Lewis and has made all the difference. In the last two seasons, the Bengals lost by an average of 8.8 points per game while they got three fourth-quarter touchdowns from wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and one from wide receiver Terrell Owens. Count Green's 51-yarder as a TD and he and Gresham have already done that this year.
In that heartbreak season of 2006 the Bengals needed just one more win to go to the playoffs, they lost five games by six points or less. The Ocho had his two fourth-quarter TDs that season in the same game when he broke up a 10-10 tie in New Orleans in a 31-16 win.
But then, that team didn't have a tight end like Gresham.
"On this team, that's different from when I've been here," Whitworth said. "You can draw up Xs and Os all you want, but when you put a safety on Gresham, the X is a whole lot bigger than the O. Just like when you put somebody one-on-one with A.J. and you throw the ball down the field and you can talk Xs and Os all you want, that X is pretty special. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about that's different. We have matchup things that we win now.
"We're not fighting uphill. We're not the under-talented team fighting this team. We've got some guys that are special talents and in years to come they'll become even more special."
Some players will say they have fresher legs in the fourth quarter this season because of the lockout that wiped out spring ball and the new collective bargaining agreement that limited training camp workouts and has dictated wearing full pads once a week.
Lewis doesn't buy it, but he says the roster no longer has some veterans that weren't happy with his notorious workload.
"We practice hard. We practice full speed, and that's how we want it to be," Lewis said. "We chase the ball in practice, and hopefully that carries over to chasing the ball all day long on Sundays, on offense and defense and special teams. When our guys walk off the practice field, they've had an hour and 50 minutes of good work.
"We'll continue to trim that back as we go forward here so that we continue to stay fresh and ready to go. It's time to put a hammer down and go. We're turning the clock to December here pretty quickly. You've got to play great in December if you want to continue to play (into the postseason)."
If this team has reversed the second-half trend, maybe it can also turn around the December-January record that is 18-21 since '03 that includes playoffs. Lewis believes his team continues to wear down foes late in games and that strength coaches Chip Morton and Jeff Friday have made them mentally as well as physically sharp.
"I think Chip and Jeff Friday do a great job of stressing to the guys that 'right now this is part of your winning edge.' Let's not forget about it," Lewis said.
Two things in sports don't lie: numbers and numbers. The Bengals have already outscored the '09 AFC North champs' second-half total for 16 games by 43 points.
Coaching? Talent? Preparation?
"It's a mixture of everything," Whitworth said. "We're more balanced. In '09 we just purely relied on the fact we could put enough people in there to run the ball effectively and if teams were able to stop it, then we were done with. This year, I think we have the balance to do it all."