Posted: 7:45 a.m.
The Stretch starts now.
Baltimore this Sunday at home. Next Sunday at Pittsburgh. In two Sundays back home against Cleveland. But one reason the Bengals have put themselves in charge of their own playoff destiny this season is their ability to not flip the calendar.
Unlike head coach Marvin Lewis's first two seasons, his Bengals are winning games they're supposed to win in avoiding the losing streaks that spin a team out of contention. And, just as importantly, they're following big wins with wins in avoiding the so-called "egg" games.
Under quarterback Carson Palmer, the Bengals haven't lost two games in seven days since way back in his third and fourth starts on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, 2004. It just so happens the losses came against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and the Bengals lost their next game to the Browns, too, in another three-game AFC North stretch. But that was on Oct. 17 and came after a bye week.
So, since Oct. 3-17, Palmer hasn't lost two straight starts, and the Bengals haven't lost two straight as a team since last year in backup quarterback Jon Kitna's first start in place of the injured Palmer in a Dec. 19 loss to Buffalo.
"You've just got to let it go," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "It's like you've got a girlfriend and you really like her and she leaves you. You've got to get over her, man."
In 2003 and 2004, she was always on their minds.
After winning Lewis's first game as a head coach in '03, the next week the Bengals kicked away a game in overtime to Buffalo. Then, after two huge wins at home to get back to 3-4, the Bengals lost a ridiculous game at Arizona to a team that had won just two games. And, even though they got semi-blown out in St. Louis, they could have finished with a winning record the next week with a win at home over the 4-11 Browns and got manhandled in one of those laid-an-egg games.
Same thing last year. After a last-snap victory over the Dolphins in their first prime-time appearance in six years, they lost those three straight to their AFC North friends from Sept. 26-Oct. 17. And, they couldn't bounce back from Palmer's injury and the New England loss when they took their 6-7 record into a home game against the 7-6 Bills that they lost by 16 points in an other egg game.
But this is the year, so far, the Bengals have truly responded to Lewis's mantra of "one week at a time." in shrugging off the sting of losses and the complacency of victory.
Lewis shrugs. This is the way it is with NFL teams, he says. Next week is always the week. But it's easier said than done. The Bengals offensive and defensive deans, right tackle Willie Anderson and linebacker Brian Simmons, have both said this season that players have done a better job of focusing a week at a time.
"The challenge every week," Lewis said last week, "is to keep up the preparation, the energy, the spirit, and keep building up for that game on Sunday."
After wins on the road in Cleveland and Chicago this season, the Bengals followed up each with wins at home. The weeks after losing to Jacksonville and Pittsburgh, they did what they were supposed to do and beat teams with bad records in the Titans and Packers, respectively. Now after last week's loss to the Colts, the 3-7 Ravens come to town three weeks after the Bengals kept them out of the end zone in a 21-9 victory.
"You can't compare. Your mindset is different," said Houshmandzadeh, who endured a seven-game losing streak as a rookie in 2001. "When your mindset is, 'We're really good, but we lost,' you can get over it a lot faster. You can think about how many ways you should have won, and you can get over it a lot faster than thinking (here we go again)."
And now is the time to tunnel their vision. They share the North lead at 7-3 with a Steelers team that has to play the unbeaten Colts at home Monday night, so when the Bengals go to Pittsburgh next Sunday they could conceivably take a two-game lead if ...
"Right now we're just trying to take care of our business," said cornerback Keiwan Ratliff. "If Pittsburgh wins every game and we win every game, we have to play them. At this point, we control our own destiny." As for Lewis's next-game-next mindset, Ratliff said, "It has been and always will be."
The Bengals said all the right things last week about not looking ahead to the Steelers, which is easy. Under head coach Brian Billick, the Ravens have beaten the Bengals every season at every site, not to mention the Steelers just last week. With quarterback Kyle Boller back at the helm, Ratliff says the Ravens are a different and more comfortable offense than they were back on Nov. 6.
"They're a better team than they were," Ratliff said.
Houshmandzadeh recalled how the Ravens countered the Bengals three-receiver sets by not going to their nickel defense and sticking with their regular alignment in trying to stop the run.
"I don't think they think we killed them with the pass," Houshmandzadeh said. "I think they feel like if they stopped the run, it would have been a different game. It's not an easy opponent."
There are some differences from Nov. 6. Bengals defensive tackle Bryan Robinson (foot) probably won't play, which no doubt energizes a Baltimore offense that has a history of pounding the ball on the Bengals. Boller is back and while running back Chester Taylor (ankle) is hurting and may be limited, the Ravens found success last week against Pittsburgh's stingy run defense by rotating Taylor more with Jamal Lewis.
And, of course, Baltimore's second-ranked defense is coming off a masterpiece in which they held Pittsburgh's highly-regarded running attack to 70 yards.
"The bad thing is, we beat them and they're upset about that," Robinson said. "But we know this team. We know that we have to play physical and be tough."
The defense knows that. It knows it has to have an answer for the Colts' 45 points, 451 yards, and five straight touchdown drives to open the game. As Ratliff said, after a loss, "You always want to get to the next game plan so you can think about getting that next win instead of thinking of the last loss."
"We saw it. You guys saw it," said safety Kevin Kaesviharn of the Colts onslaught. "No one likes the nasty taste in the mouth. We have to get rid of it."