Bengals forget 2.0 with eyes on 8-0

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Left guard Clint Boling: ""This is a much different team than a year ago."

Forget your grandfather's Bengals. Or your aunt's Bengals. Or your brother's Bengals. These 7-0 Bengals aren't even your Bengals as they get ready to play your cranky uncle's Browns Thursday (8:25 p.m.-NFL Network) at Paul Brown Stadium.

It will be recalled that the 2-6 Browns not only smoked the Bengals 364 days to the date, 24-3, in front of the same audience on the same greensward, but the Bengals' Andy Dalton offered one of the worst quarterback outings of all-time with a 2.0 passer rating that multiplied the prime-time narrative.

And don't you hate the word narrative?

The Bengals are about to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season, have all but clinched their second AFC North title in three years, and on Sunday Dalton moved past John Elway into fourth place for the most wins (47) by a quarterback in his first five seasons.

And the narrative is they can't win the big one and Dalton implodes on the big stage because his Bengals are 3-7 in prime time and 0-4 in the playoffs even though he's 23-11 in November and December and 23-13 on the road.

"It's a long time ago,' said left tackle Andrew Whitworth of Nov. 6, 2014 on Monday as the team had no time to savor another late Dalton magic act during the win in Pittsburgh. "We're so far from that and developed so much since then I think the biggest thing this year is this team is looking only at what we do in 2015. You're not labelled this or that. It's what we do in 2015 that is our label and that's the only thing that matters. Unfortunately, maybe in the past we haven't been able to handle that as well. But this year we are.

"That doesn't mean crap, either," Whitworth said of the prime-time albatross. "We've played good enough to win big games whether they're at night or on TV. That has nothing to do with losing."

It better not because the Bengals begin a stretch of three straight prime-time games Thursday  after the NFL flexed the Bengals to NBC's Sunday Night Football in Arizona on Nov. 22. They also have two more in December, one on Sunday night in San Francisco and one on Monday night in Denver for a club-record five in a season.

But then, these Bengals could care less that Dalton has thrown 11 TDs and 11 picks in prime time for a passer rating of 69.3, topped by the 2.0 vs. Cleveland.

Dalton really doesn't care.

"Well, it obviously wasn't my best game. I have to put that behind me," Dalton said. "I think it was a one-time thing. You can't let anything like that creep into your head, because we are in a much better place than we were last year. You have to do whatever it takes to play the best game that we can play. I think it will be compared to last year, just because it was a Thursday night game against Cleveland. But, I'm a lot better year this year than I was last year."

He's got that right. When he slid to a 64.7 passer rating on Sunday in the 16-10 victory in Pittsburgh, it marked the first time he'd been below the 90s. Last season in his first seven games he was as high as 117.4 and as low as 55.4 with a 68.9 thrown in with a 98.7.

"Confidence,' said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese of Dalton's steel-belted 107.7 passer rating for the season. "Good things are happening with the receivers and the timing and that builds the confidence. The group keeps doing it led by Andy in the fourth quarter. It's not going to happen every time, but the more you do it, the more confident you get and the more the odds are stacked in your favor. They're good guys and they're hungry."

And they've won enough big games this year that they've got a chance to become just the 12th team in the past 20 years to start 8-0 and the 11th in this century, according to STATS. Three (the '98 Broncos, the '06 Colts and '09 Saints) won the Super Bowl and two more (the '07 Patriots and the '09 Colts) played in the Super Bowl.

"It's Thursday night football. We're the only teams playing. Everybody will be watching this game," said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "It's time for us to go out and show the world our identity . . .  This is a great opportunity to prove to the world we are contenders and leave the old stuff behind."

There was a lot of time spent Monday hashing around the idea of a Thursday night game and how it seems to be the ultimate hypocrisy for a league so committed to plater safety, although nobody came out and said it. Indeed, NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, who'll probably start at right tackle Thursday with Andre Smith in concussion protocol, ventured to say it's too early to make a call on it.

"From a scientific standpoint we're very early as far as studying everyone playing a Thursday night game," Winston said. "People forget they've only been doing it since '07 and '08.  We're still collecting data (on) injuries.

"I think guys are all over the place on it. I think some hate it. Some like it. If you're a young guy, you can get up for Thursday and have the whole weekend off, you love it. if you're an older guy and sometimes it's hard getting ready for a Thursday game, having the weekend's not that big of a deal. We have to find out exactly where we are."

But these Bengals don't seem to get bottled up by what was or what might be. Especially the 2.0 game.

"This is a much different team than a year ago,' said left guard Clint Boling. "A lot of the same guys but the mindset is a little different right now. We've been playing really well. (Last year's Cleveland loss is) not something you just forget about. But I think at the same time there's a different mentality and mindset that you're able to move past something like that."

Nose tackle Domata Peko agreed you can't forget about it ("It was embarrassing, man"), but he also thinks things are a bit different than 364 days ago.

"We're confident. We're on a march right now. just keeping our eye on the prize," Peko said. "Plus, it's an AFC North game. It's a chance for us go up four games. It's a big opportunity for us."

If this isn't the same team from last year, Peko likes to think it's also not the team that lost to San Diego in the 2013 Wild Card game at PBS.

"This game is kind of like the San Diego game," said Peko of this year's PBS opener. "Just like what we did to San Diego. They got us here and we took it to them when they came back here."

Whitworth doesn't want to hear the word, "narrative," either.

"One of the things why we're where we are is this is 2015 and how good we play this year is the only thing that matters,' he said. "Nothing else matters. Nobody's narrative or thought or whatever they believe. The one thing that matters is putting Ws on the board and that's really the focus of this team."

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