The 10th anniversary of Paul Brown Stadium finds the Bengals in a far different place than when the ribbon got cut.
A franchise quarterback has been charged with defending an AFC North title clinched with the first division sweep in team history and he's getting help from a top four defense that has gone where no Cincinnati defense has gone in three decades.
It was the decade the Bengals grew into a contender and PBS shook with all the growing pains. The second decade is just a 40-yard dash away now with the Aug. 15 preseason home opener against Denver and the Sept. 19 regular-season opener against the Ravens, the team predicted to give the Bengals the biggest fight to defend. Until then, here are our 10 most memorable PBS moments and counting.
1. RETURN OF THE JUNGLE, Nov. 16, 2003
The Bengals start the day as longshots against the 9-0 Chiefs. They end the day in first place for the first time in 13 years with a 24-19 win that ignites the Marvin Lewis era and they've sold out every game since. As the rookie head coach chokes up in the Bengals locker room, he salutes Bengals president Mike Brown for giving him a chance and a sellout crowd for believing in his team.
Wide receiver Peter Warrick scores two long touchdowns in the rollicking fourth quarter, one on a punt return, while running back Rudi Johnson emerges with 165 yards and quarterback Jon Kitna flourishes with two more TD passes that give him 11 with just one interception in Cincinnati's five wins. After it is over, Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson reveals a PBS shovel leaning against his locker as a symbol of the new Bengals commitment to "just keep shoveling."
How long ago was that?
When the Bengals clinched their second AFC North title against the '09 version of the Chiefs last Dec. 27, one of only two Bengals that were on the field that day back in'03 was the man that boldly predicted the Bengals would knock off the unbeaten Chiefs: Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. The Ocho catches the winning TD pass in vintage '09 fashion just before the two-minute warning while fullback Jeremi Johnson helps Cedric Benson break the club record for 100-yard games in a season.
Who better but Lewis to sum up what the '03 win meant?
"It gives us legitimacy for everything," he says that day in the emotional locker room. "We have now played against three division leaders, and we have beaten them. That's important. That we can play football like the rest of them. From the time that we started, we said we were going to bring the NFL back. And that was NFL football out there today. It was NFL atmosphere. It was fun. Everybody had fun. When you come to the stadium, you ought to be here for fun, and that is what we were having."
2. HISTORY CHANNEL, Oct. 22, 2000
Bengals running back Corey Dillon's NFL-record 278 rushing yards has been passed twice since this improbable day and it will be passed at least twice more in the coming decade. (Here is to Chris Johnson coming up with the league's first 300-yard game ever at some point.)
But no one will ever do it like Dillon does it in just the sixth game ever at PBS. He gets his 278 on just 22 carries, the last a 41-yard TD with about two minutes left in the game, giving him three more yards than Walter Payton in a 1977 game and the Bengals a 31-21 win over Denver.
Not only that, he does it for a team that completes just two passes and none in the last three quarters against the NFL's second-ranked rush defense.
Not only that, it comes for an 0-6 team that has turned to the NFL's oldest rookie head coach when defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau took over in the wake of Bruce Coslet's resignation less than a month before.
Not only that, a team that has been shut out three times suddenly rolls up 407 rushing yards, the most in 50 years in the fifth-best ground game of all time.
"It was a day of immortality," says Willie Anderson.
3. STEELING ONE, Sept. 27, 2009
This is when everyone starts to believe.
The Bengals should be done against their arch nemesis. They've never beaten the Steelers at home under Lewis and they haven't beaten them anywhere in three years and three days. And they trail, 20-9, with 9:20 left after getting no yards in the first quarter, getting outgained by 220 yards in the first three quarters, missing an extra point on a high snap, and converting only 25 percent of their third downs.
But the defense steps up and holds Pittsburgh to a pair of field goals on drives to the Cincinnati 6 and 1 while quarterback Carson Palmer engineers fourth-quarter TD drives of 85 and 71 yards, the last an incredible march kept alive by running back Brian Leonard's dive on a fourth-and-10 pass and capped by wide receiver Andre Caldwell's four-yard TD catch with 14 seconds left lost in a curtain of sound.
"Who Deys" are heard deep into the night on and around Mehring Way for the win that vaults the Bengals to the drive that ends in their second AFC North title in five years. But it is much more than that. After three years of getting Tread On Me by the Steelers, safety Chris Crocker and his mates send a message to wide receiver Hines Ward and company with a healthy counterpunch.
"He said, 'Same old Bengals. Same old Bengals. You all sorry,' " Crocker recounts after the game. "We're not the same old Bengals. We're not. If you can't see that, you're blind. You know 86 runs his mouth. That's all right. I had a few words with him."
4. HEARTBREAK HOTEL, Jan. 8, 2006
It is the high tide of Bengaldom.
The first playoff game ever at PBS, a Wild Card affair with the always present Steelers. The Bengals and Palmer, their MVP candidate, are just 35 days removed from a 38-31 win in Pittsburgh that has them and their Who Deys oozing with confidence. Palmer is coming off the greatest season ever by a Bengals quarterback with the first triple-digit passer rating
But it is all gone in two snaps.
Former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen careens into Palmer's knee as the longest postseason pass in Bengals history is unleashed down his right sideline. Rookie wide receiver Chris Henry makes the 66-yard catch, but PBS goes from din to silence as Palmer lies at his 10-yard line. His knee is shredded and so, as it turns out, is Henry's.
The Bengals can't hold on to leads of 10-0 and 17-10 and the shock doesn't seem to wear off until Palmer and Caldwell hook up nearly four years later. The Steelers not only go on to win, 31-17, but they also take a Super Bowl that Bengaldom will always believe was theirs until Palmer went down.
5. SPIKE STRIKE, Sept. 13, 2009
Try explaining this to your grandchildren.
The Who Deys are dancing in the aisles with 38 seconds left on what has suddenly turned out to be a glorious Opening Day. It has been a day of frustration, but Palmer has come to the rescue with what will become routine this season. His 91-yard drive in the previous 5:43 has given the Bengals their first points of the season and a 7-6 lead over a Denver team now pinned inside its 20.
But, can you still believe it?
Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton throws up a desperate pass to wide receiver Brandon Marshall and it looks like it is in the bag as cornerback Leon Hall bats it in the air to the sideline. But it goes right into the hands of Brandon Stokley beyond the reach of the secondary for the latest, longest winning TD pass in NFL history with a numbing 11 seconds left.
The second guesses become third, fourth, fifth. The Bengals Cover 2 was too shallow. Too many safeties converged on Marshall and not enough rotated back. Hall should have batted it down, but not up.
But Hall, along with the rest of the Bengals defense, had been brilliant all day. Before that play, the defense had allowed just 215 yards and nine first downs, and Hall had two tackles and three passes defensed while helping hold the all-world Marshall to four catches for 27 yards.
It ends up setting the tone for a crazy-quilted, last-second run to the postseason fueled by the defense. The fact the Bengals rebound from this loss to win their next four may be even more improbable than the play itself.
"It hasn't hit me yet," says linebacker Keith Rivers in the tomb of a locker room. "I mean, that's something you see on Saturdays in college. That's something you see and you think that can never happen to you."
6. MONDAY NIGHT MADNESS, Sept. 10, 2007
Until Mize Zimmer arrives, this is the best and most intense a Lewis defense plays as they craft a thrilling Kings Island ride of a 27-20 victory over the Ravens that opens the season for the Monday Night Football audience before the second-biggest crowd ever at PBS.
It is great theater in an orange-and-black sea of sound. After the Ravens had a fourth-down tying touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap waved off when Heap was called for pushing off on safety Dexter Jackson, defensive tackle Michael Myers' diving interception of Kyle Boller's tipped pass stops the Ravens on the 2-yard line with 1:13 remaining to give the Bengals their sixth turnover of the night.
The defense withstands eight goal-to-go snaps in that goalline stand after scoring a touchdown (linebacker Landon Johnson's fumble return) and setting up the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter with left end Robert Geathers' 30-yard interception return off a zone blitz.
"There's a lot of question marks. I think they answered every question mark about 'Can the defense win games?' because they flat out won the game," Palmer says after securing his 10th career come-from-behind fourth-quarter victory.
"They had turnovers ... but every time I looked up, the crowd got loud and I just figured we had another turnover. It just kept happening and kept happening. They kept giving us opportunities. You feel bad because we didn't take advantage of all the opportunities. But we did enough, I guess, to get a win. A win is a win against that team."
7. RAGING BATTLE OF OHIO, Nov. 28, 2004
The Bengals win the highest scoring game by both teams in an NFL game since the 1970 merger, as well as the second highest scoring game in league history.
The numbers are numbing.
Rudi Johnson has the fourth-best running day in club history with 202 yards on 26 carries in supporting Palmer's first-ever four-touchdown game. Palmer's 251 passing yards combined with Johnson's work yields 504 total yards, the Bengals' most since 544 against the Steelers in 2001. It marks just the third time in history the team rushed and passed for at least 250 yards each, and the first time in 18 years.
But, naturally, it is defense that wins it after all when cornerback Deltha O'Neal picks off Kelly Holcomb (348 of his 413 passing yards in the second half) and returns it 31 yards for a touchdown with 1:52 left and the Bengals clinging to a 51-48 lead.
"There's no need to try to sit here and analyze and be logical about what happened in that second half," says Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons. "That was from somewhere else."
8. CARSON COMEBACK, Aug. 28, 2006
The only preseason game to make the list and why not? All of Bengaldom's angst is stripped naked for everyone to see when Palmer returns for the first time since reconstructive left knee surgery.
It has been less than eight months since Palmer crumpled to the turf with the playoffs shot and maybe the future, too. But he bounces off the canvas after sitting out the first two preseason games and stakes the Bengals to a 31-0 lead and 34-7 at the half against the Packers. He looks better than ever with a passer rating of 136.9 fashioned on nine completions out of 14 passes for three touchdowns.
Even Mother Nature gives out a Who Dey with a lightning storm that yields the first weather delay at home in the 39 years of Bengaldom. The Bengals end up winning, 48-17, for their biggest preseason points total ever.
"He didn't miss a beat; he hasn't lost a thing," says Willie Anderson. "He's our leader and he's back. That's got to make any Bengals fan real happy."
9. SHOOTOUT AT THE TOP, Nov. 20, 2005
A matchup of the NFL's two highest-rated passers on a Sunday night doesn't disappoint.
Palmer gets great protection from the league's leading sackers with tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones allowing him to throw for 335 yards and two TDs of 25 of 38 yards. But Peyton Manning is a little bit better on 24-of-40 for three TDs and 365 yards and kills the Bengals with five third-down conversions of at least 11 yards in the Colts 45-37 win.
The first half ends with Indy leading, 35-27, tying it for the second-highest scoring first half in NFL history. Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco finishes with a career-high 189 yards and running back Chris Perry has what will prove to be the best game of his injury-plagued career with 82 yards on just eight carries and 41 more yards receiving as the Bengals score 17 unanswered points to cut the lead to 35-34 just three minutes into the second half.
But the Bengals can't get any closer as Manning gets big days from tight end Dallas Clark (125 yards) and wide receiver Reggie Wayne (117).
"You have to be perfect. I said it before; he's unbelievable, and they're unbelievable as an offense," Palmer says of Manning. "Edgerrin (James) ... his vision is fun to watch. But when you're playing against them, it's not fun to see them move up and down the field. But it's unbelievable what they do offensively."
10. ENOUGH CED, Oct. 25, 2009
It is being called "The Benson Bowl" because Bengals running back Cedric Benson is matched against the Chicago team that cut ties with him following a bumpy relationship on and off the field after the Bears made him the fourth pick in the 2005 draft.
But the 45-10 drubbing of the Bears is so much more as it vaults the Bengals to 5-2 heading into the bye week.
And Benson does his yeoman share. His 189 yards on 37 carries is the most ever by a back against his old team and the most by a Bengals back in five seasons. The Ocho's 118 yards on 10 catches mark his first back-to-back 100-yard games since Sept. 16-23, 2007. Palmer throws five touchdown passes, one off his club record, and his 146.7 passer rating is his all-time best.
Benson admits it gets personal once. With 11 minutes left. After his 14-yard run. He goes over to the Bears sideline to stare.
"I tried hard the entire game not to get too involved in my emotions," he says. "It was just an emotional moment for me. Here we are in the fourth quarter running the clock out. We have a lot of points on the board and everyone has had a great day. I think there was a small part of me that couldn't resist just going up and showing a little emotion."