Cornerback Leon Hall and safety Chris Crocker were keeping it loose in the Bengals locker room after practice Monday and it was hard to tell who was the straight man.
"We're in desperation mode," Crocker told some reporters and Hall fired back, "We're not panicking."
"We are panicking," Crocker said with a straight face.
"We're not in Dallas," Hall said.
Crocker laughed, but admitted, "It is a critical point in the season for us."
At 2-3, the Bengals are just one of six AFC teams with a losing record. But they are also one of seven teams that are either 2-3 or 3-2, and are within two games of the six AFC teams that have four wins. They've got a lot of company in the Less Than Expected Division, led by the 1-4 Cowboys and joined by the 2-4 Chargers, 2-3 Vikings and 1-5 49ers.
Translation: A lot of ball left.
"This goal can be accomplished. It's not like it's sitting miles away and we're just reaching it," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "It's open right now. We still have a legitimate chance. We're right in the thick of things with everybody else."
The players are keeping it loose, but guys like Crocker understand this is their stretch run. Sunday's 1 p.m. game in Atlanta against the 4-2 Falcons is as close as it comes to the playoffs in October with the rest of the AFC threatening to run away.
"It's going to be very tough to make the playoffs," he said. "We can't afford to keep losing games or we'll be left out ... one win, that's what we need. One win to get that feeling back. Guys feel a little better. It just affects everything. Our only goal is to win one game and not look past Atlanta. But you need to get to one win to win two, then win three.
"Right now we're at the back of the pack. We have killed ourselves. We can only get better from this position. There have been a lot of bad things that have happened to us this season. We're looking forward. What else can happen? We've already killed ourselves. Let's go out there and play ball."
The offense has taken most of the heat for the last two losses, which were supposed to be locks. But if the offense isn't adhering to last year's formula of ball control, then neither is the defense sticking to the '09 script. It did some things it didn't do very often last year, such as give up late drives at the end of the half and game on days each game was decided by a field goal, as well as being unable to get off the field in the fourth quarter.
Numbers-wise through the first five games, last year's fourth-ranked defense is pretty comparable to what is going on this season. But the big differences are in the major impact categories:
Sacks, third downs, big runs, and points.
The defense had 14 sacks after five games last season with foes 24-for-67 (35.8 percent) on third down while averaging 18 points per game, and there had only been one run of 24 yards. This year the numbers are six sacks, 26-64 (40.6) on third down, and 20.4 points per game. And there have been five runs of at least 24 yards.
The 20.4 points per game should be good enough to be 4-1. But not for an offense that struggles to get 20. Last year the Bengals won five games when they failed to score 20. They've scored 20 and 21 the last two games. Not enough this year.
"Honestly, if you look at last year, we were one or two points better than a lot of teams," said defensive tackle Tank Johnson. "If you run that back, you could easily have lost those games. We easily could have been 6-10. It's just one or two plays and we have to make them again like we did last year. It's a different year, different team. If you're one or two points better, teams are going to scheme to try to get those one or two points. No excuses. We have to find a way to make one or two of those plays."
That means sacks and third downs and the Bengals are going to be revamped in both areas Sunday without suspended defensive end Antwan Odom. He wasn't going to play anyway because of his injured knee and even still he might have been phased out with the return of Jon Fanene, sidelined since the opener with an injured hamstring.
Odom had eight of the Bengals' 14 sacks last year after five games but none this year and lost his starting job at right end to second-year man Michael Johnson before he hurt his knee. It was Fanene who came off the bench last season for a career-high six sacks when Odom blew out his Achilles in the sixth game last season.
On third down the Bengals had been normally using a line with Johnson and Robert Geathers at ends and Odom and rookie Geno Atkins inside. Odom, sapped by a virus early in camp, didn't have his strength of last season.
But Fanene can play both tackle and end, as can Frostee Rucker, so the Bengals figure to at least have a different look in what has been a punchless four-man rush. The toll is being seen in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has built his schemes on the premise that "we're only as good as our corners," and if one of them has even a slightly off day like Joseph did against Tampa Bay, then they need help from the rush.
"We've got to get after the quarterback. We talk about it a lot, but we're going to have to start doing it," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "We've got one or two of our guys back. (Fanene) is really good going after the QB. He's going to help us out a lot. We just have to get back to the basics. Getting guys hands off of us, just playing ball. Eight or 10 times we've had a hand on the QB and he was able to escape. So we have to finish. One of the key things we talk about it is finishing the game. The past two games we had it won in the fourth quarter and we ended up giving it away. It's all about finishing. That's what we've been (doing) this bye week."
The ultimate example is late in the Tampa Bay game on the Buccaneers' tying drive when Geathers had quarterback Josh Freeman in his sights for at least an eight-yard loss on third-and-five. But he let Freeman get outside him for the first down.
"We've been there," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We have to get the quarterback to the ground."
Michael Johnson, last year's third-round pick out of Georgia Tech, continues to get praise from the coaches but he hasn't had a sack since he got a half-sack in the second week of the season against Baltimore. In his defense, he's been moved about this season, playing the spring and summer at SAM linebacker before getting moved back to end exclusively when Fanene got hurt.
"He's so athletic and talented and sometimes that can work against you because your body can do so many different things," said Tank Johnson. "If he just hones in on one or two things, that will make him successful. ... He's a guy that once that light goes on in his head, it's going to be a good thing for us."
With Odom saddled by so many injuries and Fanene sidelined, Johnson has been asked to stop the run, at times, as well as rush the passer. At 6-7, 260 pounds, he's not the ideal run basher.
"It's been straight," Mike Johnson said. "I've been getting more confident and I'm using my hands more.
"It's like I've said. We've got to keep going, keep finishing. Guys that have played in the league a long time keep telling me that sacks come in bunches. There are times you have a great rush and the quarterback gets rid of the ball. Sometimes you just fall into them. When they come, they're going to come. We're going to get them. We can't get down and discouraged and lose confidence. We've got the same guys that got a lot of sacks last year. We even added some guys. We just have to stay confident and believe in our abilities."
Fanene's return should ease things for Johnson and allow him to focus on those one or two things because as Peko says, "Fanene can play anywhere. The nose. The three technique. Anywhere."
The bye idea then, is to not only make the big play, but avoiding giving up the big one.
"We get three-and-outs; we've been doing pretty well," Peko said. "But in key moments of the game, we end up not making those plays."
Indeed, on the drive before the Bucs lanced the defense with three big passes that produced the winning 10 points, they had a rousing three-and-out, complete with two sacks by Crocker.
And looking at the overall stats, in '09 the Bengals had allowed 327.6 yards per game compared to 317.6 this season after five games. In '09 after five games, they had allowed opposing passers to throw for five TDs with four interceptions while completing 61 percent of their passes for a 79.9 rating. This year opposing QBs are completing 57 percent of their passes for only a rating of 70.1 while throwing seven interceptions and just six TDs.
The rushing stats are also in the ballpark. The Bengals gave up fewer yards on the ground last year at this time (98.8 per game compared to 111) and 4.2 per run last year compared to 4.4 this year.
But it's the impact plays.
That's what Joseph has been thinking about since he lost that jump ball to Tampa Bay rookie wide receiver Mike Williams for the tying 20-yard touchdown catch with 1:26 left.
"The one chance I had to make an interception down there, I got scored on," Joseph said. "In the red zone, you're always trying to keep them from scoring a touchdown. It's all about points. Last year we did a good job doing that. This year, it's a new year. Everyone's aware of it. We've had self-evaluation. We've looked at it and it' been good for us. There's been a lot of correction in fundamentals and technique that got us into trouble in a lot of different areas. Myself and everyone on this defense is hard on themselves. I feel like I had a legitimate chance at making that play."
That's what it has come down to: Staying above water with a couple of plays.
"It's a long season; teams are going to beat up on each other," Tank Johnson said. "You can see there are really no bad teams. ... The thing you never want to do is take your head out of the water and look up. You want to swim to the other end and touch the wall. The second you come up for air, you might miss an opportunity."