Bengals hope experience pays off

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Safety Reggie Nelson (with ball) beat the Steelers in a Wild Card game when he played for the Jaguars.

After talking about exorcism on Sunday, on Monday Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' ritual for victory consisted of driving out the evils of turnovers as he talked to the media about his

seventh play-off appearance coming up Saturday (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

Like the man for whom the stadium is named said, "Act like you've been there before," and Lewis certainly did because he has.

"Things kind of worked out the way we assumed and I'm proud of our guys for taking care of what we could control," said Lewis of the AFC playoff maze. "Which is getting through the football game yesterday and coming out on the winning end. We'll continue to move forward."

It was almost like a Throwback Monday to that 2005 Bengals-Steelers Wild Card Game as Lewis talked about a backup quarterback and keeping composure.

And just like the old days, Lewis refused to comment on Dalton's status for this game in the fourth week of his recovery from a fractured throwing thumb.

But he did make it plain he feels like the ugliness of last month's game won't be repeated. He phoned his concerns to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin the morning after and his players have said they've discussed it among themselves.

"I think the message was taken care of before," Lewis said.

 Even though Lewis and his team are going to get grilled this week about his 0-6 post-season record, they've come a long way as the most experienced team in the game this time around.

Pittsburgh does have 14 players with a post-season win and the Bengals have just three (Reggie Nelson, A.J. Hawk, Eric Winston), but the Bengals have 35 players with at least two post-season games under their belts, nearly double the Steelers' 18. And the Bengals have just finished a five-year run with the AFC North's best overall record that has qualified them for the last five postseasons. Only New England, Denver, and Green Bay have done that.

"Take care of the football. And when you have opportunity, take it away," said Lewis, when asked what it will take to beat a division rival that has lost just three times in PBS since it opened in 2000. "Whether it's the Steelers, or any team; it's paramount. When its playoff time, it becomes more paramount."

Experience and lack of turnovers. Throw in a consistent running game and there is the play-off formula. It just so happens the Bengals are coming off their fewest turnovers in history with 17.

Nine came via interceptions and eight off fumbles with the only other team in club history to come near it Lewis' '05 AFC North champs with 20.

Before agonizing over middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's lateral off an interception that sealed Sunday's win over the Ravens with 24 seconds left, Lewis paid homage to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and his staff.

*  *"I think it starts with anybody who possesses the football. Their ball security all the time, practice, everything you do," Lewis said. "Hue and the offensive coaches have done an outstanding job in that from the start; impressing upon the group that that was going to be a key to becoming a champion. Then it goes to the quarterback, who possesses the football nearly every snap.

"But it's also returners, everybody who touches the ball. When defensive guys have the football in their hands, too. We don't want to have Rey Maualuga pitching the ball at the end of the game.  We want to return the ball, get what we can get, and let's go."

Which naturally brings up the fourth NFL start of quarterback Andy Dalton against a defense that forced him to throw two interceptions last month when he came off the bench to replace Dalton in Pittsburgh's 33-20 victory. But since then in his three starts he has no interceptions and he's made enough throws to pass for four touchdowns, average more than seven yards per throw, and win two games. The Steelers defense, ranked 30th against the pass, has lost every game it hasn't turned it over.

"We feel good about his decision-making those three games. We weren't as thrilled with some of his decisions his first opportunity," Lewis said of that game against Pittsburgh. "He's progressed. Every time we come out here is a new opportunity. It's part of the plan, the makeup, and what our quarterback has to do."

But what McCarron and the Bengals are about to try and do isn't easy. According to STATs, the last quarterback to start a playoff game and win it after making three or fewer regular season starts in his career is Gifford Nielsen in 1979. Nielsen had just one NFL start before leading the Oilers to a win in San Diego in the divisional round. And to keep the turnovers theme going, that was an Oilers defense that led the NFL in generating turnovers and on that day Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts threw five picks.

So a defense that has turned it over seven times in McCarron's three starts would be helpful again. (By the way, the last quarterback to start a home post-season game with three starts or fewer was the Bears' Doug Flutie and he lost to Washington, 27-13.)

  The numbers suggest the Bengals are due on several fronts. With 208 games, only Jim Mora (231) has coached more regular-season games than Lewis without a play-off win. But he's not making it personal.

"One-and-six. That's all. It's important to move on and win. Our guys have worked hard, we have to come out and play great football come Saturday evening," Lewis said. "That's what's key and paramount. It's not personal to me. It's an important game for our football team because it keeps our goals in line."

Cincinnati Bengals host the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.

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