Chris Crocker, heading toward his 10th NFL December, knows a stretch run when he sees it and he's been through all kinds of postseason sprints with these Bengals.
There was the division sweep of '09 that brought the Bengals within a whisker of a playoff bye until the 1-4 finish finished everything. There was the scratch-and-claw wild card run of last season when the unsteady rookie close of 2-4 almost wiped out the spectacular start.
Now at 4-5 and coming off the Dalton era's most impressive win in its 25 games against the Super Bowl champion Giants, Crocker isn't quite so sure how to classify this one.
"I will say this: I do think we have a run in us," Crocker said before Wednesday's practice. "It's about time. I really think we have a run in us. We've had so many close games. We just needed a win to get us jump-started."
It's hard to get a read because Crocker looks around the locker room and says it's a totally different team than his four previous Bengals editions. "A totally different feel," he said. The team that heads to Kansas City on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) has just 13 players that were on it when the Bengals beat the Chiefs in their last Paul Brown Stadium game of '09 that locked up the AFC North title.
Even the difference between this year and last year is just as stark. There are 14 new players who have either started, are regulars, or are playing new positions, including six rookies.
"You're sitting around talking to guys about your rookie year and what was going on in the league and you stop talking because no one knows what you're talking about," Crocker said.
That's why he thinks the finish of the past few seasons isn't going to have an impact on this team. Head coach Marvin Lewis's record by the month reflects the struggles down the stretch. His best months are November (21-17-1) and September (17-16). This year's winless October after last year's perfect October dropped him to 15-24, but the Bengals haven't had winning a December/January since 2007 and are 20-25 including the postseason.
"These guys have no idea about all that; they're too young," Crocker said.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a rookie in 2006 when the Bengals needed just one win to make the playoffs in the last three games, actually thinks the youth is going to help over the last seven games. He says this group is playing with more energy.
"We've started fast and then towards the end we've slowed down. Skill-wise and a lot of things on both sides of the football I think we've actually been older probably than we are now," Whitworth said. "We are a lot younger team. I think it's harder on older guys as the season wears on to keep performing – the skill guys. The guys that are carrying the rock and getting beat up on and everything else. I think it is harder on those guys than the younger players. They are fresher, their legs are fresher, their bodies recover faster."
The Bengals are getting some key people back with fresh legs, too. Defensive tackle Pat Sims, their run specialist who missed the last seven games of last season with injured ankles, played his first game of the year last Sunday.
Rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones, the speed element the Bengals have been missing opposite A.J. Green, is about to return after missing what amounts to the last three games and a month with a sprained knee. The team hopes center Kyle Cook, on the new injured reserve recall list with an ankle injury, can be back for the last three or four games.
The Bengals are hoping a team that always seemed to lose guys at the end looks to be getting them back just in time. They're hoping a team whose skill veterans always seemed to hit the wall (Cedric Benson, Laveranues Coles, Chad Ochocinco) now has a younger constitution. Even Crocker, who struggled in last year's playoff game, is playing with fresh legs after missing all of the preseason, training camp, and the first month of the regular season. It's a team that hopes is jelling at the right time.
"They are still every week going to get a little bit better," Whitworth said of the young players. "Three of our guys haven't played probably 35-40 percent of the league. Every week they're going to play a new player and new scheme, they are going to grow from every time they get to play a 4-3 defense or 3-4 defense or blitzing defense. Every time they grow and get that experience they are going to get a little better. This team has the potential to get a lot better."
Defensive tackle Domata Peko, who missed December 2009 with a knee injury, senses a difference.
"The one thing about this team right now is that it's playing with a sense of urgency," Peko said. "If you look at it, we've had some horrible Decembers. I think we're playing with a sense of urgency now because we had the slow start. You go on a four-game losing streak when we did and you've got to put the pedal to the metal to get out of it."
And for the first time, the Bengals seem to be oblivious to what is going on with the AFC North leaders. The Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger and the Ravens without Ray Lewis may be ready to give up one of those playoff slots if another team gets hot. But the Bengals got behind so early, they've barely noticed.
"I don't worry about that. We've got a lot of wins ahead of us we have to get," Whitworth said. "So, there is a lot of football left. There are a lot of great teams. I don't think anybody has won the wild card or won their division yet. There is a lot of football left to be played and a lot of good games, so our concern is how good can we play and we can't worry about anything else. Can we finish this final seven and play the way we need to? "
Crocker is thinking the same thing.
"I think this team is so young, we're just concentrating on getting through each game," he said. "It's a week-to-week thing. It's yet to be written. That's the great thing about it. We've got a chance to get something done."
Whitworth also feels like he's on a different team.
"It's got different players, it's younger, there's a little more energy in this team. You look at the last couple of weeks," Whitworth said. "The Steelers came in here and that was a knockdown, drag-out game. They are a dang good football team. Obviously, if they can win a game like the other night after losing their quarterback. Then you face a really hot Denver team and take that down to the wire, too, and play the way we did against New York. I mean, this team seems to be getting better, is kind of my point, heading into this last half than going the other way."
Now look at the next five weeks. The Bengals play teams with a combined record of 15-30. Crocker was talking about his defense, but he could have been talking about his team.
"You can always every week make adjustments and get better," he said. "That's the thing this week, it's coming out and playing just like we played last week and just try to build on it."