Celebration and consolation

Domata Peko

The center held on the last regular Sunday in the AFC. The Time-Space Continium didn't tear apart. There were no events of Biblical proportions. Unless you count the Prodigal Son coming home to beat Denver quarterback Tim Tebow.

The Bengals lost their regular-season finale to a Baltimore team that played with its pads lower than they did and grimly won its first AFC North title in five years, 24-16, before a raucous Paul Brown Stadium sellout. But the Ravens did it without former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham while former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan ran out of comebacks in Oakland, and the lone Bengals win over a winning team had enough juice to put them in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

"I remember during the lockout people said we weren't going to win any games this year; we were going to be 0-16," defensive tackle Domata Peko said after the Bengals finished an improbable 9-7. "Look at us now. We're winners. It's paying off, all the hard work. We were working out during the lockout and I think all that came into play. Now that we have made it into the playoffs, we have to really prove that we belong there."

The Bengals won't have to wait long in a suddenly short week. The Saturday game in Houston (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) marks their first road playoff game in 21 years and is a rematch of Houston's fourth-quarter win with two seconds left 22 days ago at PBS. Head coach Marvin Lewis gave his team Monday off and they'll be jetting to Texas on Friday at 3 p.m. in anticipation of playing rookie quarterback T.J. Yates and his separated non-throwing shoulder.

The Bengals may have been bloodied Sunday, but they healed themselves with thoughts of how recent teams got hot in the playoffs. Cornerback Nate Clements invoked the 2008 Cardinals losing four out of their last six before winning three straight to get to the Super Bowl.

The nice thing about this short week in which the Bengals have to forget this one is they have veterans like Clements and Peko, among others, that can soothe them. They even have veterans not playing that helped. While Lewis tapped Clements to talk to the team Saturday night, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden asked injured right guard Bobbie Williams to come in and talk to the offense.

"Now we have a chance; we're one of 12 teams," Peko said. "We want to hold that trophy up. It starts this week in Houston."

The Bengals finished 1-7 against teams with winning records and got swept by the other AFC North teams seeded ahead of them in the playoffs, the No. 2 Ravens and No. 5 Steelers, but their 24-17 win over the 9-7 Titans back on Nov. 6 in Nashville stood up to break any tiebreaker that surfaced with Sunday's scores. A clean sweep of the Jets, Broncos and Raiders gave the Bengals their second Wild Card in history and first since Paul Brown coached his last game in 1975.

"We've had a lot of ups and downs," said rookie Pro Bowl rookie receiver A.J. Green. "Whatever the situation is, we don't flinch. We'll fight to the end. We put ourselves in position to be here today. Our goal was to get to the playoffs and that's what we did."

The Bengals may have been the third AFC North team to make it Sunday and they may match up well with Houston's AFC North tendencies. But the Ravens beat them up in every phase of the AFC formula by rushing for 221 yards and holding the Bengals to 105, while running back Ray Rice tore out their guts by bookending the game with touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards.

The Ravens bullied the Bengals at the line of scrimmage on third-and-two or less, converting all five of while thwarting the Bengals two out of three times, and they forced the game's only turnover at the most inopportune of times, 7:15 left, when tight end Jermaine Gresham fumbled at the Ravens 41 while the Bengals were driving and trailing, 17-13.

"Third-and-one; we've had trouble on it," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of a problem that has plagued the Bengals the past month. "The big thing is keeping yourself out of those situations because Baltimore is built for third-and one. They're big guys who are hard to move. We didn't convert enough in the first half. If we played in the first half like we played in the second half, we would have been all right."

The Bengals continue to search for that elusive complete game. After managing just three points and 104 yards in the first half, they generated enough in the second half for 336 yards and 13 points.

Indeed, they're searching for that complete final month. Peko allowed "our records in December are pretty bad," and since his rookie year of 2006 the Bengals are 13-16 in December and January.

"In big games like this we tend to try and do too much," Peko said. "I think when you try and do too much you get out of your gap and into someone else's gap. If I'm trying to do your job, who's doing my job?"

Rice's runs said nobody. The first one came on the game's fourth snap, a 70-yard burst in which no one touched him once Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda got into middle linebacker Rey Maualuga about four yards off the line of scrimmage and there was no help in the secondary. And it came right after fullback Vonta Leach bulled for a first down on third-and-one.

The second came on third-and-one and this time Rice followed Leach plowing into Maualuga and again there was nobody behind him. On both plays safety Chris Crocker said he was blitzing.

"I don't know what happened behind me; it just happened fast and he was gone," Crocker said. "Somebody didn't get on the right side of the ball and he squirted out of there."

Now the vets like Crocker have to get the defense regrouped. Vets like Clements, the star of the postgame. After playing 165 games and 11 seasons, he finally made the playoffs for the first time at age 32 with the AFC's youngest team.

"I've learned as much from these guys as they've learned from me," Clements said. "I'm honored to go into battle with these guys week in and week out. We're going to embrace the joy and cherish the opportunity we have."

Clements was one of those front-office moves made in the first week after the lockout that Peko praised on Sunday.

"Once we signed him, I was so excited to get him," Peko said. "Now I've seen what he does. He's a hard worker. He's here all the time. He works late. He brings a swagger. He brings hard work and determination and a lot of guys look up to him. He's got that leadership we need on this team."

Green, Cincinnati's first rookie Pro Bowler in 30 years, felt the vibes from Clements and Williams.

"Just to know that a guy played 11 years and hadn't made it, that's crazy," Green said. "You always go out and play for those guys. They're heart and soul. Got to have them in there."

Green said the Clements moment was "very emotional," and Whitworth said the visit from Williams gave everyone a lift.

"How could it not?" Whitworth asked. "You know Bobbie's so joyous and always making everybody smile and we hadn't seen him since the surgery (on his broken) ankle."

And there are vets like Whitworth that are going to keep pumping up their teammates this week. He alluded to the game six weeks ago in Baltimore.

"For the second time, it came down to the last play against one of the best teams in the league," Whitworth said. "Maybe the third time is the charm."

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