Bengals, Ravens get their crowded hour

Domata Peko

Donald Lee has been here. Win and you're in. Against a division rival at home. In fact, it was just last year. In fact, his 10-6 Packers went from here and a 10-3 win over the Bears to the playoffs and the Super Bowl title.

"That's how it was the last two weeks," said Lee, the veteran Bengals tight end Wednesday as he thought back to last season in Green Bay. "I feel good about our chances ... young. Hungry. Hard-workers. No fear. Well-coached."

With Sunday's game against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium (4:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) the only thing standing between the 9-6 Bengals and the Wild Card, the snap-crackle-and-pop of a playoff week is already here.

For the fifth time in Lewis's nine years the Bengals wake up on the final day of the regular season with a shot to either go to the playoffs or tune up for the playoffs. But for the first time since his inaugural season of 2003, the Bengals aren't burdened with the expectations of a seasoned but underachieving team and the fear of a fast-closing window for moody veterans as they head into this very different finale. 

With four Pro Bowlers or alternates 24 years or younger and nine starters 25 or younger, the AFC's youngest team doesn't know what it doesn't know.

As Lewis will say, "That can be a good thing or a bad thing," but for the most part this team has done things its more experienced ancestors from the previous decade only dreamed.

Like going 5-3 on the road, posting five fourth-quarter victories, and outscoring their foes by 56 points in the second half. If the 2003 or 2006 or 2007 or 2009 Bengals had any of those traits, they would have either made the playoffs or won a playoff game.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko, the de facto captains who led this team through the voluntary voluntaries of the lockout, sense it's a different team that tries to knock the 11-4 Ravens out of the AFC North title.

Instead of a locker room grousing about a lack of respect, this one seems to respect the lack of grousing. A winning team that sold out its stadium just once before Wednesday hasn't had time to worry about getting dissed nationally.

"I don't think we're so much carrying a chip on our shoulder as we're just comfortable with that. That's fine if you don't know who we are," Whitworth said before Wednesday's practice. "If you don't respect us, it doesn't matter because the truth is we don't really care that much about you either. I don't think we get enamored with big teams or big groups. We just want to go play football and whoever executes better is going to win and I think that's what this team will try to do."

Whitworth was the guy that came back from the voluntaries raving about the cool of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. Peko was the guy with the clipboard running through defensive looks pumping up the near-perfect attendance.

"It started then and it's been rolling ever since," Peko said. "Our character is a little bit different now. Our team is a little bit tighter than those other teams. Everyone is real close. We rely on each other on both sides of the ball."

These Bengals are just fine with the hometown love that came down this week when the club's buy-one-get-one-free offer to season ticket holders yielded 18,000 tickets in 48 hours.

"I think a lot of guys have been saying it: we have to prove to the fans there's a reason to be here," Whitworth said. "We gave them an opportunity and reason to be here and they're showing up for us."

Like Whitworth, Peko was in the building when it shook with a goal-line stand in the din of 66,093 against these Ravens to open the 2007 season on Monday Night Football, and when it split open with the rumble of 64,538 as the Bengals beat the Steelers in the last minute in 2009. They were also in it when a missed field goal with eight seconds left in the 2006 season sucked the air out of 66,049 and that playoff bid.

"People love football here and really love the Bengals," Peko said. "Now that we're having a better season, it's good to see the fans. That's why we play the game: to make everybody happy so the fans cheer for us. I can't wait to hear 'The Jungle' on Sunday.

But can "The Jungle" wait for out-of-town scores?

Don't count on it. Lewis hinted Wednesday he'll do what he did last Saturday with the Jets score and ask that it not be posted in the stadium. If the Bengals lose Sunday, they need the Jets to lose in Miami, plus either Denver to lose in Kansas City or Oakland to lose to San Diego to make it. The Bengals will get the Jets final score before they take the field, but the other two games will be played at the same time.

To post or not to post?

"That's my business,' Lewis said.

Hey, don't blame Lewis. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy did the same thing last year to the Giants-Redskins game that was going on while Green Bay was beating the Bears.

But here's how much it all means to the players: Lee thought the Packers were scoreboard-watching during that final game. But according to newspaper accounts, the players were aware of the Giants score through other mediums that McCarthy didn't control.

"As long as we control our own destiny, there's no need to watch it," said Lee, who wasn't even aware the Giants win over the Jets was blacked out last Saturday during the first half, never mind last year's Giants win over the Redskins at Lambeau. "That would be fine by me. We're in good position now because we control our own destiny and a lot of teams can't say that."

Peko and safety Reggie Nelson were also unaware that Lewis urged the Jets score go A.W.O.L last week.

"Did he? I didn't pay any attention," Nelson said. "When you're in this stadium, you worry about this stadium and getting our fans into the game and that's it."

The Bengals buy-one-get-one-free offer isn't the only reason home field is a hot topic. The Ravens are 3-4 on the road this season and 2-6 against Lewis at PBS. It seems to get middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the future Hall of Famer, a bit cranky.

"If there is one person in the seats or whether it's 60,000 in the stands, we don't care about it," Lewis told the media Wednesday in Baltimore. "That's their problem. We've got our own problems. We don't have to worry about selling out. We have to worry about trying to keep people out and things like that. We have a different vibe in Baltimore, and that's a credit to our city, that's a credit to our fans. So, that's something they have to worry with, not us."

The Ravens may be already in the playoffs and the Bengals need to win to get there. But it is sounding like there is more pressure on Baltimore to win in order to get homefield advantage in the building the Ravens were unbeaten, and not to lose to avoid a fourth straight season of road playoff games.

"This is a playoff game. The thing is, they're trying to get in and we're already in, and we have to go finish what we started the whole year," Ray Lewis said. "And that is that we know we are playing for homefield advantage. We know how big that is – to come play in Baltimore. And there is nothing else on our mind. We know that they are going to give us all they've got. This is a division foe. Marvin is definitely going to have them ready to play. But, we're ready to play as well."

Ravens running back Ray Rice outlined it pretty well Wednesday.

"Their city wants to see them in the playoffs, and they're going to come out and fight like never before," Rice said. "They've shown the ability to be a great team at times, and we've got our hands full. But I think we've got just the men for the job, being that we've been a playoff team each year (since 2008) and we've never had a (home) playoff game. So, we're going to be out there playing for our lives as well."

It should be noted that there are exactly 12 players on the Bengals active roster who were active when the Ravens took the second game of that 2008 sweep over the Bengals. A total of 12 regulars from scrimmage or special teams came through the 2009-2011 drafts.

Whitworth perfectly captured the essence of this team compared to his others.

"I just think with the young guys we have and the guys that kind of been around here for two or three years that are still really young football players and really hungry, just their overall attitude," Whitworth said. "A lot of guys make it about a lot of different things – how nice their facilities are, what they get to eat, how much media attention they get, how much money they make – and you can get caught up in all those things and make life miserable for yourself.

"Until you realize that you are getting paid to play a game for your career. I think guys around here respect that and realize that and love the opportunity to go out on Sundays and play and love the opportunity to come in every day and work. And that is what I love about the team."

Lee, who wasn't here then, was in Nirvana last year.

"We had more experience," Lee said of those Packers compared to these Bengals, "but at the same time we had a lot of guys hurt and a lot of people didn't think we could do it. But we believed in each other and kept the faith and that's what we have to do here."

"Some similarities," Lee said as he recalled the words of his quarterback in those last few weeks. "I remember Aaron Rodgers telling guys not to panic, to trust their technique, trust their training. Just do what we do in practice."

Lee was told Lewis might be banning some scores this Sunday.

"Pretty smart," he said. "As long as we control our own destiny, we don't need to watch."

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