Posted: 3:40 p.m.
The Bengals have had one winning last month of the season under Marvin Lewis. Did that 3-2 record in 2004 vault the Bengals to the 2005 AFC North title, or was it pure coincidence for a team that has finished the second half of the season 5-3 three times in Lewis' four previous seasons?
The Bengals can finish 3-2 in December and another 5-3 second half with a victory in Miami against the one-win Dolphins next Sunday. A finish that will be scoffed by the cynics, but gives guys like wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh hope.
Green Bay, 12-3, won its last four games in an 8-8 season last year. Tennessee, 9-6 and dueling with Cleveland for the last AFC playoff spot, won six straight before losing the '06 finale to New England. The Steelers won seven of their last nine to finish 8-8 before winning the AFC North this season.
"If you look at a team like Green Bay, you see a team that struggled a lot last year and now is one of the hottest teams in the league," said quarterback Carson Palmer, reacting to Houshmandzadeh's comments. "There are a lot of teams that are playing well this year that played poorly last year. We can be one of those teams. We have a lot of work to do to get there."
And you can argue that the worst season under Lewis, be it 7-9 or 6-10, followed its worst finish with three straight losses.
But that's how Jacksonville ended its identical 8-8 season and the Jaguars are finishing off an impressive 11-4 run with that smashmouth style Lewis craves. The 4-12 Browns lost six of their last seven last year before embarking on this year's Cinderella story. The NFC East champion Cowboys lost three of their last four in going 9-7.
The East runner-up, the Wild Card Giants, made the playoffs after dropping eight of their last 10. The Vikings are in the hunt at 8-8 after also losing eight of their last 10 games in a 6-10 season.
So what does it all mean?
"They've gotten their feet wet and they've experienced the expectations and the disappointment, as well as the positives," said Lewis at his Monday news conference. "I think as they regroup, recharge, retool for their next opportunities, they're better served to do what it takes to get to that next level again.
"They understand the feelings, and the strain physically and mentally. This group continues to prepare very hard. It keeps you from getting stale when you have guys getting new opportunities to play. "
SPEAKING OF SPECIALISTS: Lewis praised the special teams for holding down the NFL's leading kick returner Josh Cribbs on Sunday, limiting him to one long return of 33 yards and the four shots for 115 yards for an average of 28.8 was two yards below his average. That's three times the Bengals have handled one of the NFL's leading return men, and not been fried. The others were the Pats' Ellis Hobbs and the Jets' Leon Washington.
SECOND GUESS CITY: Two of the three biggest second guesses of the day (the other was going for two up 19-0 at the end of the first half) were addressed Monday.
(On Sunday, Lewis said he felt the Bengals had the momentum and the ability to go up three touchdowns.)
The Bengals got flayed when they threw on first down from their own 28 up 19-7 with 7:35 left in the game and it resulted in an interception that set up the score that cut the lead to 19-14.
Lewis wanted to take advantage of an eight-man-in-the-box alignment in the passing game, but Houshmandzadeh said he got held before falling to the ground.
"We expect our guys to make one-on-one plays. We have a quarterback who can make one-on-one plays, and receivers who can make one-on-one plays," Lewis said. "We still had a lot of time. We have to move the football offensively. You can't go into a shell at that point in the game. We know we're going to be punting into the wind, and you don't want to do that. You want to get the ball back to midfield, where you can change field position. You don't want to just hand it off, hand it off, hand it off, punt it in that situation."
As for wide receiver Chad Johnson going out of bounds at the end of his 16-yard run stopping the clock with 3:51 left at the end of his reverse, Lewis gave him a mulligan.
"Chad doesn't run the ball that much, so he may not have the usual awareness of the overall situation," Lewis said. "If he stays in bounds, that's a good thing, but if he stays in bounds, gets hit, and fumbles, that's not a good thing. He had a big play, which changed field position. Hopefully next time, if ever again, he'll have the presence to stay in bounds if he can. But the running out of bounds didn't have a big effect on the game."