One of the rookies had a question for one of the scribes in the Bengals locker room Wednesday as they talked about the NFL playoff chase with two games left.
"Is it always like this?" the rookie asked.
Oh yeah, kid. Last year the Bengals had to win six of seven and one of them included a win in Heinz Field of all places to make it as a wild card and render the finale against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium irrelevant.
And the year before that the Bengals secured the wild card even though they lost the finale at PBS to Baltimore because the Jets and Broncos also lost.
But it is looking more and more like this season finale against the Ravens at PBS a week from Sunday is finally going to matter for both teams.
But not if the Bengals beat the Vikings this Sunday at PBS (1 p.m. with tickets still available) and the Ravens lose at home to New England to give the Bengals the AFC North title. Or if the Bengals go to 7-0 at home Sunday and the Dolphins lose in Buffalo. That would assure a wild card and it is aptly named because it would absolutely be wild (not to mention doubtful) if the Dolphins lose to journeyman Thad Lewis seven days after solving Hall of Famer Tom Brady.
Got that kid?
"What scenario do you want?" asked the rookie, who is getting the hang of it.
A Bengals win. A Ravens loss.
"Oh, the safe way," the kid said, alluding to that seductive No. 2 seed.
Right, because if the Bengals win out and the Ravens beat the Pats, Cincinnati gets the two seed and a week off. But cagey Chris Crocker, in his third straight playoff December blender with these Bengals, has some advice for the kid.
"We're not in the playoffs. That's really the goal to win the division. I don't even know the scenarios, I just know that we have to win this game and then we'll get to the next game and we have to win that game," Crocker said.
"We've just got to win, really. We've got to win. We've really got to win because if we lose this game, it's going to be really ugly. So let's just win."
"Can't lose this game - it's not going to be pretty," said Crocker, even though the Bengals can still win the North with a loss to the Vikings and a win over Baltimore. Honestly, I think we're going to win and I think Baltimore, they have momentum and they're going to win too. I think that last game's going to mean a lot. So we just need to take care of business."
Maybe some numbers can point the way with the Vikings coming to town.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has never lost to the NFC North at home (5-0). Lewis is 15-7 at PBS in December, 11-3 since 2007, and 6-2 vs. the NFC in December PBS games. Lewis is 26-24 in December, when quarterback Andy Dalton is 8-4. The Bengals have won seven straight at home, the Vikings haven 't won in seven road games this season and the Bengals are 3-0 this season when they come back home after a road loss.
But the numbers don't quell guys like left guard Andrew Whitworth and the NFL's leading tackler, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict. They are team leaders and at the moment they are feisty and ornery.
New England or Baltimore?
"I don't care. We just need to win our games. We shouldn't be in this predicament," Burfict said. "We should have won our last game but you can't control what happened in the past. We just need to take control of what we need to do and just win.
It irks Whitworth no end that the buzz has virtually handed the AFC North to the 8-6 Ravens after their thrilling Monday Night victory over Detroit cut the 9-5 Bengals lead to one game with two to play.
That after two draining weekends that have dragged Bengaldom through, in no particular order, Nirvana, purgatory and hell. On Dec. 8 the Bengals went from the No. 2 seed to just another club in the time it took them to kneel down in the win over the Colts and walk into the locker room, where they saw the unthinkable Baltimore and New England comebacks.
And, this past weekend, what hurt more? Terence Garvin's $25,000 shot to the jaw or Justin Tucker's 61-yard arrow through the heart?
"It's almost a negative to have to play at night and have to play after that. In a normal Sunday you're not paying attention to any of that and you find out after the game," Whitworth said. "I think it's key to really not wrap yourself in the success or failure that other teams are having.
"Even though you wouldn't open a paper or watch a TV interview right now and think we're in that position, we actually control our destiny. Baltimore doesn't. We are the ones that are in first place, and if we win our last two games, we win the division. The truth is, we still control our destiny. Nothing's changed. All we have to do is go win and we're in control. So that's the only thing we need to worry about. Nothing else really matters. Win the last two games and we don't have to be nervous or anxious about any other scenario out there."
And don't get Whitworth started on the soft tag. The Bengals began December by manhandling AFC contender San Diego on the road a week before the Chargers stunned Denver. Then a week ago the Bengals beat up AFC South champ Indianapolis. Then on Sunday night they dropped a punt on the goal line in Pittsburgh and had a punt run back on them that could have been negated twice on a clip and helmet-to-helmet hit, and now they aren't tough.
"It is people who are going week to week and however they feel on emotions rather than watching what we do," Whitworth said. "For the last two weeks before the Pittsburgh game the No. 1 thing you would put us on is that we were tough. I don't understand where toughness comes in to dropping a snap on the half-yard line and them getting an easy touchdown and then returning a punt for a touchdown and being up 21 points. I don't understand that idea."
The Bengals haven't been able to put anybody away in the race even though they are unbeaten at home, won two road games at the gun, won on the West Coast again, and beat three Super Bowl QBs in 20 days.
"It really hasn't been that we're playing that bad. I really can't remember how many games we've lost since we had a two-game lead," Crocker said. "Everybody else is winning. Baltimore wins with a 61-yard field goal, the week before that I can't remember who they beat. It's just going to come down to the end of the year. That's how the NFL scheduled it. They really want to see people being competitive at the end of the year. It's going to come down to the last game to see who wins the division. What better story, I guess."