Bengals hope to weather past in Leap Year

Updated: 1-1-12, 10:30 a.m.

It's a little bit like that time travel novel you got for Christmas when the Bengals meet the Ravens on Sunday, New Year's Day 2012 (4:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when a win at Paul Brown Stadium puts them in the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

As if to taunt the Time-Space-Continium, a revised forecast from the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio Saturday night had winds screeching out of the west at 27 miles per hour and gusting up to 42 with a kickoff temperature of 41 degrees dropping to 37 degrees by end of the game. There is only a slight chance (10 percent) of rain. It is as if even Mother Nature is taking note in the 365 days from the 13-7 loss in Baltimore the Bengals have undergone a historic transformation.

There is 2003 and 2006 converging, when the Bengals needed to win their final game of the season at home to make the playoffs and got beat by the AFC North rivals Browns and Steelers, respectively. But, unlike Sunday, they needed help with other teams to lose. The Bengals didn't in '03 but got it in '06 and couldn't help themselves when Shayne Graham's 39-yard field goal to win it with eight seconds left missed.

And there is Graham converging in the wings for that other AFC North team as the Ravens loom Sunday while Baltimore mulls a kicking change.

And there is quarterback Carson Palmer playing for Oakland on Sunday as he tries to win a division title in a game that could eliminate the team he led to two AFC North titles.

If the Bengals lose and the Jets lose and the Broncos lose.

"I think this time it's different," Marvin Lewis said Friday after the week's final practice, the head coach that has been there for all nine seasons. "We don't need help from anyone else. We just need to take care of business."'

And there is the Bengals all-time leading wide receiver, Chad Ochocinco, playing in New England's finale Sunday and perhaps setting up a playoff game with his old mates.

If the Bengals can win the next two. But they have to win this one first.

Dramatic ifs and buts. And yet there is one thing that is definite: The narrative that marked The Ocho's decade with this team has been dramatically lacking in drama in the first year without him.

"There was a conscious effort," Lewis said of the most turbulent offseason in club history, "to try and eliminate what we felt took away from football."

Which is maybe why this week seemed like his players were so loose when in actuality it's just the way it is supposed to be without the up-and-down of locker-room distractions. Searching for an example of how this team is different than Lewis's other teams that prepared unsuccessfully for an elimination game, left tackle Andrew Whitworth couldn't think of any.

"I think the best example is there's no rah-rah speeches," Whitworth believes. "No guys over-excited. Just business as usual. Guys trying to nail the game plan. Not worried about hype of game."

In the years that Lewis's teams made the playoffs, they had tough finishes with 0-3 in '05 and 2-4 and 0-2 in '09. It was also tough in the years the Bengals lost out by a game, losing three of their last four in '03 and their last three in '06. But he likes this roster that has won two straight.

"You want to be a hot team at the end of the season; you want to be trending upward," Lewis said. "The team that holds the trophy at the end of the year is upwardly trending. You need upwardly-trending people that have enough substance to them. You need people with substance to do that because that's what life is."

There is also the 2003 template that Lewis brought to revive a franchise that had won 19 games in the previous five seasons. It converges with the 2011 team he and Bengals president Mike Brown virtually started from scratch with a rookie offensive coordinator, rookie quarterback, rookie No. 1 receiver, and seven different Opening Day starters on defense.

But Lewis had just enough familiarity in the locker room to also get the holdovers to respond as he approached it like a new team.

"They know you, you know them; that helps," Lewis said. "When the guys walk through that door, they know they're going to work hard if they're going to stay here. That was part of the culture we had to change. To build that foundation. That foundation is established. When they get picked up at the plane, they know what's going to happen here. They have to work hard. They have to be physical."

There are key questions facing the Bengals in the offseason, chief among them is if this is the last PBS game for running back Cedric Benson, wide receiver Jerome Simpson, and cornerback Adam Jones. But for the first time since the '08 trade rantings of The Ocho, the core seems stable on and off the field. On Friday, Lewis vowed to continue to build through the draft, which in 2012 yields two first-rounders and five picks in the first three rounds.

In '06, Whitworth said the club knew it had problems with character. In '09, with their defense banged up and lack of a passing game, the Bengals couldn't recapture what they had earlier in the season. But there is a different feel now, he believes:

"We're just not close," he has said, "but we're actually pretty good."

In time, they'll know how good.

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