Posted: 3:55 a.m.
MINNEAPOLIS - On Saturday night, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis appealed to his team's mindset for Sunday's smashmouth assignment against the elite Vikings with clips from the movie "Gladiator."
On Saturday night, Vikings head coach Brad Childress compared Sunday's bid to get back on track with NFC North fundamentals against the upstart Bengals to a NASCAR pit crew.
On Sunday, the 11-2 Vikings won what both coaches advertised as a street fight with a stunningly easy 30-10 victory over the 9-4 Bengals at The HHH Metrodome that had observers wondering if the score reflected just how far the Bengals are from NFL stardom with the stretch drive kicking in with three games left.
But veterans on both sides of the ball, such as quarterback Carson Palmer, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left end Robert Geathers emphasized that despite the size of the rout, the Bengals still have prime real estate in the playoff picture with next Sunday's game in San Diego looming.
"They outplayed us, but we're still in good position," Geathers said. "We do our job next week and we're right where we need to be. We got outplayed today. But we'll go back to the drawing board, make some corrections for next time. Trust me. We'll be ready."
Whitworth, part of an offensive line Sunday in which rookie right tackle Andre Smith made his first NFL start and only one starter has been in the playoffs, chalked it up to a learning experience.
"We're still a young team," Whitworth said after the Bengals suffered their biggest trouncing of the year. "When you go on the road to Minnesota and a tough place to play and have to go against a great team, it's a great learning experience for us. We still control our season. We're going to move forward from here."
A game away from clinching a playoff spot with the AFC North title, the Bengals fell a game behind the 10-3 Chargers in their bid win the AFC's second playoff seed and a bye. But some players were dismissing what happened Sunday and were instead pointing to next Sunday's game in which the Bengals could tie the Chargers with a victory and take command of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
"Today wasn't going to help you all that much because it was against an NFC team," said one player. "It still comes down to next week no matter what happened."
But are the Bengals going the right way? The Chargers have won 16 straight in December since 2006 and are coming off Sunday's huge win in Dallas that was their eighth straight victory.
Since beating Pittsburgh a month ago to complete a four-game sweep of the Steelers and Ravens, the Bengals are 2-2 and have committed 38 penalties while only scoring six touchdowns. In their first appearance Sunday against a winning team since Nov. 15, the Bengals went a season low in yards (210) and yards passing (91) while their best-in-the-league scoring defense gave up their most points of the season in what was supposed to be a test of the Bengals' playoff mettle.
But the defense wasn't the culprit Sunday. Not only could the Bengals not pass it, they couldn't punt it (rookie Kevin Huber was brutal despite being indoors with seven punts that netted an average of 32.4 yards) or kick it when Shayne Graham started the second half by kicking it out of bounds.
"Today guys weren't ready mentally," said running back Cedric Benson, who had a curious 96 yards with seven of his 16 runs going for two yards or less. "(We) didn't mentally prepare. Not many of these guys have been in playoff-type games. We've played big games this year. We've played the Pittsburghs and the Baltimores. Today should have been that same approach for us, but for some reason, it wasn't there. I don't know why."
The Bengals certainly didn't respond in the playoff environment in a game they muffed the fundamentals that the Vikes emphasized. They came out jittery and suffered seven of their 11 penalties in the first quarter. Three were on the offense's first eight snaps with two false starts and offensive pass interference.
Asked if the Bengals simply weren't ready for prime time, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (who had his fourth false start in four games) said, "No, we were ready, we just didn't have the kind of game we wanted today."
"I can recall Arizona getting beat extremely bad last year in New England 50 to something - and continued to march forward (to the Super Bowl)," The Ocho said. "And do the things they do to fix whatever problems they had. We're in a similar situation."
Palmer called next week's game in San Diego a "measuring stick game" after losing what everybody thought was the matchup the Bengals were going to answer a lot of questions.
"Yeah, but we didn't play our best football," Palmer said. "We're not going to look into it much. It's a win we wanted to get but we're not going to get deep into it like the media will. We're not worried about that. ... When you get your butt kicked like that, guys are already ready to play right now no matter if you're beat up or tired. We'll be ready to play in San Diego."
But the penalties are clearly beginning to wear on everybody on offense. In the last four games, the Bengals have committed 25 penalties on that side of the ball alone and six on Sunday.
"It's an uphill battle all day," Palmer said. "You don't have the whole playbook to look at. The playbook gets smaller. The room for error gets narrower."
Benson shook his head and could only exhale "Ooh," when asked about the impact of the first-down pre-snap penalties.
"It takes a ton (out of you)," Benson said. "It puts the play-caller into a tough bind. It takes him out of the rhythm he wants as a play-caller. It puts us in a bind offensively. It's a bit frustrating. We've talked about this from time to time about how we should be eliminating that in this point of the season and we're still facing it and we have work to do."
Whitworth said the team has to learn from it.
"That is another example of why this is a great experience for us, coming on the road and playing a great team like this and killing ourselves," he said. "Us killing ourselves is the big issue. I don't feel they out-physicaled us. I don't feel they are better than us as much as the score allowed. I think it's like the Oakland game. When you make critical mistakes it can get away from you in a hurry."
Realizing the Bengals have yet to lose back-to-back games this season, Palmer accentuated the positive.
"One thing we've done after a loss and after a tough stretch is get better as a team," Palmer said. "We've got a group of guys. We're going to stay focused. We've got a big game this week with a lot riding on it. It's going to be another hostile environment for us. We've got to keep our heads down, stay together as a team and find a way to win."