Updated: 6:15 p.m.
The Bengals aren't playing to win the AFC North when they go to the NFC North-leading Vikings. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday they are playing for a lot more than that in a rare December Sunday 1 p.m. game between two of the NFL's top teams.
"We're not just playing to get into the playoffs," said Lewis at his weekly news conference. "We have an opportunity to be one of the top seeds in the AFC and that's what we're shooting for."
The Bengals are a win away from clinching the North. The last time they were so close to the playoffs, they lost the last three games to finish a game out of the playoffs in 2006. It wasn't so clear cut then because they were grinding for a Wild Card, but all the scenarios clicked into place that they needed. Except that they couldn't get that last win.
"'06 was a totally different group. A totally different team and really has no bearing on this group at all," Lewis said. "We weren't in control of our destiny in '06. We didn't know we were, but we actually were because everyone ended up losing. We're playing for different stakes right now."
The Bengals know they are on the big stage now with the 10-2 Vikings and Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, he of the 39 postseason touchdown passes. But the strength of the two teams is reflected in the defensive matchups. The Bengals are second against the rush, the Vikings third in the NFL. The Bengals are first on third down, the Vikings tied for third. The Bengals are fourth in total defense, the Vikings eighth.
"I've only heard it once; it's not the focal point at this time," said wide receiver Chad Ochocinco of the magic number of one. "Coach Lewis has talked about how important this game is as far as having our destiny in our hands. We've done some of the things we want to get done thus far. We need to continue on that path."
After three weeks of getting ripped for playing close with bad teams, the Bengals are looking forward to playing elite teams on the road in Minnesota and San Diego and are hoping to quiet the critics.
"They won't quit until we're holding up that silver trophy with the football on it," The Ocho said. "These next two games are probably the most important as far as the playoff run goes, as far the postseason goes. Once we get into the postseason, these are the type of teams we'll play. This will sort of measure up how we're going when we get in the postseason. In order to win, these are the teams we have to beat ... one in the NFC, one in the AFC. It should be interesting."
Safety Chris Crocker likes this week's assignment and the focus of his team despite what he calls three "disappointing" games the last three weeks against losing teams. This team, unlike the 2005 AFC North champions, isn't as vocal or as high-profile in the media.
"Maybe if we go out there and play the way we're supposed to play, I'm not saying kudos, but maybe some of the criticism will die down. When you beat the best ... you look around this locker room and you don't have guys (saying) 'I guarantee a victory' this week or just taking trash. That's not what we're about."
What this Bengals team is about is stopping the run and so is the Vikings. Crocker says that Minnesota's Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league "because he has all the elements. Speed. Power. He can catch out of the backfield. Chris Johnson can't run you over."
Bengals running back Cedric Benson gets another shot at a team with a long streak of not allowing opposing running backs 100 yards. Back in October, Benson went on the road to snap Baltimore's streak at 39 with 120 yards and now the Vikings have the longest active streak at 35.
"The foundation of our defense is built on stopping the run and we take a lot of pride in that. And that's what we like to do. We like to smash the run," said Vikings right end Jared Allen during his conference call with the Cincinnati media Wednesday. "We'll see come Sunday if the streak holds."
Allen's answer about a good run defense is the same answer the Bengals give:
"Football is pretty danged simple," Allen said. "There's only a certain number of blocks (where you) can possibly see no matter what play they're running. See the ball and tackle. Where teams get gashed is they get out of character when they're not in gaps. If we play gap-sound football, we'll be successful."
Sound familiar? That is what Mike Zimmer's one-gap scheme is all about in Cincy. The physicality of cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, as well as rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga and the ability of the linemen to keep people off the linebackers have all figured into the stingy run defense.
And another interesting element is going to be on display Sunday in Minnesota. The Bengals loved the athleticism of free safety Madieu Williams but they felt like he lost some of his physicality after he had shoulder surgery in 2005 and let him go to the Vikings in free agency. before the '08 season. Crocker arrived in the middlle of '08 with a more aggressive style that fits what Zimmer is trying to do.
"Effort," Crocker said of the key to the run defense. "If one guy misses a tackle, there is another there. The guys know where to be. That's a lot of it."
In December, teams have to run the ball and stop the run. And the focus is clearly on December with Lewis moving practice indoors to Wall-to-Wall in Mason, Ohio, about 30 minutes north of Paul Brown Stadium, because winds in excess of 50 miles per hour and rain were forecasted for Wednesday afternoon. The players say the bus ride is no distraction.
"Not with the freaking blizzard out there; it's great," The Ocho said.
"It will be good to go out there and not have to worry about the elements," Crocker said. "It's hard to concentrate and be crisp in these kind of conditions. Especially when you're not playing outdoors this weekend."
QUICK HITS: Crocker (ankle) indicated he won't practice Wednesday, but he said it's getting better every day and he anticipates playing Sunday…Defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) says the plan is for him to return for the Jan. 3 finale in New Jersey…Middle linebacker Dhani Jones said there'll be no lack of focus Wednesday when the team travels a half-hour to Mason, Ohio to practice: "It could be a blessing in disguise…. Did you see the weather out there? It's a blizzard." A blizzard isn't in the forecast, but 50 mile-per-hour winds are. Lewis said he went indoors because of the weather and not because Sunday's game is in a dome.
Of course, the players always talk about wanting an indoor facility but all talk of building one stopped when the economy went south. The franchise quarterback has always wanted one.
"It's a pain," Carson Palmer said of the drive to Mason. "It's a drag, but it is what it is. Just sitting on the freeway for 45 minutes or an hour. We've actually sat on the busses for a couple hours one year because of the snow. It's the situation were in.
"I think everyone in the locker room understands our situation, and you have to find a way to deal with it."
» With 12.5 sacks, Allen is the biggest sack threat the Bengals have faced this year. The Bengals know him and the Minnesota defense pretty well. Both he and Lewis played football at Idaho State and Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was Lewis' first coordinator in Cincinnati from 2003-04 before Lewis chose not to retain him.
"Actually we're both Idaho State Hall of Fame inductees so that's pretty sweet, too," Allen said. "That's the most important part of this game, Idaho State versus Idaho State."
Allen agreed that Frazier is soft spoken and "a man of great faith and integrity. It makes it easy to work for."
Allen made no bones that he'd like to get a shot at Bengals running back Larry Johnson, his former teammate in Kansas City. Not because of the run defense pride or anything.
"I want to hit him, I never got to hit LJ. I played with him all the time," Allen said. "You always want to hit your buddies harder than you hit your enemies. He's a good dude. I wish him all the he success. He really is a good dude. ... I like LJ; we're friends. He's kind of got a bad rap, but he was always stand up with me and that's how I judge people is how they are with me.
"I think he's at a place where he can be successful. He's got a big bunch of horses in front of them. He's not expected to shoulder the whole load. When things headed down in Kansas City he was the main focal point because he was the star back and in years before, we had a very good supporting cast."
» The Bengals did sign defensive tackle Shaun Smith on Wednesday and made room for him by putting rookie tight end Chase Coffman (ankle) on injured reserve. Coffman never played in a game despite getting picked in the third round and that offseason debate can now officially commence. Coffman is one of the big mysteries because in talking to some players they think he's a pretty effective tight end from what they see in practice.
Smith came in quietly, suddenly appearing in the locker between right guard Bobbie Williams and center Kyle Cook. He says he's changed since he was here the last time from 2004-2006, when he was known as a solid run-stopper and a good guy, but also as a guy that didn't mind saying what was on his mind, a trait that got him in trouble here and during his 19 starts for Cleveland from 2007-2008.
But he's always been a stand-up guy and Wednesday was no different. Ask him about his voice mail that says he's made some changes in life and if he doesn't get back to you, you know why.
"Some of the people that were hanging around me," Smith said. "I'm not all holy or anything like that. I'm just wiser, more mature and make smarter decisions. I'm happy to be back. It's a lot different. Carson is still over there in the corner. Chad moved down a little bit. Good to see Marvin. Mr. (Mike) Brown. He told me just take care of business.
"I told him thank you for the opportunity to bring me back. It's not just about filling a role. It's about being appreciative. Some guys don't understand. Being on the street and not playing and knowing you can still play is difficult. And you see other guys get signed and you know you're not signed because of some issues you may have with yourself and not in control of. ... I'm blessed to be able to play on Sundays again."
It probably won't be this Sunday. Indications are Smith will be inactive. Except for a two-game stint in the UFL late last month, he's been on the street since the end of preseason and he'll probably need a week to get acclimated. Lewis hinted at such in his news conference when he appeared not very impressed with the caliber of the UFL.
But with Domata Peko down until the Jan. 3 finale at the earliest and Tank Johnson grinding through foot and back problems, Smith is probably going to get a call at some point on first and second down to stop the run. The Bengals have seventh-rounder Clinton McDonald on the practice squad and love his potential and attitude, but they were looking for a bigger body.
Smith played pretty well down stretch of the Bengals' last division run when he started five of the last six games in the 2005 regular season. He played big in some big games, such as when they allowed 95 yards rushing on 28 carries in the win in Pittsburgh that clinched the division. He was also part of efforts that held the Browns to 84 yard on 26 carries and the Bills 67 yards on 27 carries.
Defensive lineman Frostee Rucker, who has talked occasionally to Smith since he left, senses a change in him since he had reported run-ins in Cleveland with everyone from the franchise quarterback to the general manager. But Smith is contrite, saying he has reached out to Brady Quinn and George Kokinis and that a problem with defensive line coach Bryan Cox was "overblown."
"He's done some growing up. I think at this point he's grateful to have another chance in the league," Rucker said. "He's a big guy. He's played some good ball. We know he can. We've just got to get him ready to go. He just has to know it's not time for Shaun to shine in the locker room but time to go to work. He knows that."
» Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is getting ready to take on the Vikings mascot so he can grab his horn and blow it when he scores a touchdown: "I'm not sure where I can find the Viking guy. I'll be sure to snatch the horn from him. I hear he's pretty chiseled. He's a little swollen. I may have to tussle with him."
As for last week's $30,000 fine for donning the sombrero and poncho on the sidelines following his TD catch, The Ocho doesn't care that the fines are getting higher and higher. "If they keep jacking it up, I'll keep jacking up the celebrations," he said.
Was it worth it?
"Damn right it was," he said.
» Just five players appeared on Wednesday's injury report: Defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) and running back Bernard Scott (toe) have already been ruled out for Sunday, while safeties Crocker (ankle) and Kyries Hebert (knee) along with cornerback Morgan Trent (knee) did not participate in Wednesday's practice.