If Willie Anderson tried to downplay it, his Ravens coaches and teammates and the hardest-bit Bengals fans wouldn't let him Sunday when one of the greatest Bengals ever showed up Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium wearing purple and went home with a game ball deflated by Baltimore's relentless defense.
"I love those fans. There were people who showed up wearing my jersey. Those were the people I fought for every Sunday," Anderson said Sunday evening as he sat on a Ravens plane zooming to the playoffs at 8-4 after the Bengals offense suffered another crash landing in a 34-3 loss.
The fans saluted him with a couple of banners (one on the 50-yard-line read "Welcome Home Big Willie") and his teammates saluted him with a Gatorade shower as the clock ticked down. Which wasn't exactly a surprise because last week they hit head coach John Harbaugh when the Ravens beat his old team, the Eagles, and a few weeks ago Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan got doused when he beat his brother's Raiders.
"I knew it was coming," Anderson said. "But they surprised me. They sucked up to me and then the D-line got me."
Yes, Anderson's foot looked just fine. After declining a pay cut from the Bengals on Cutdown Day back on Aug. 30, Anderson has been on a mission to prove that the Bengals decision-makers were given wrong medical information about his physical status. He offered a 39-minute video in which he helped his team roll up 451 yards of offense, 147 on the ground.
Meanwhile, the guy that took his place, right tackle Stacy Andrews, and the rest of the Bengals offensive line struggled on a day quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was hurried and hounded on four sacks and 11 hits while running back Cedric Benson got just 1.7 yards on his 10 carries. The Bengals tied the club record for fewest first downs in a game with six, last set in 1992.
And Anderson is extremely comfortable in a locker room that got a postgame speech from him Sunday after they gave him the game ball and Harbaugh spoke to the team. Anderson told them that November and December is about sacrifice in the NFL, about doing things for the team and not yourself and then he brought them in a huddle and they broke on "Sacrifice."
The contrast, of course, couldn't have been starker. The prevailing opinion is that the '05-'06 Bengals didn't get any better because they didn't sacrifice, but Anderson took no shots when he scaled the podium in the visitors postgame media room.
Although he joked, "I was never on the podium before."
"They've got their issues over there, but we've got our own issues," Anderson said. "We can't go into a game and let the opponents' issues become our own issues."
He did talk about the similarities of the Ravens running game and how it woke up the echoes of that Bengals team that won the AFC North in 2005 and fell short of the playoffs by a game in 2006.
"We've got three good running backs and they like to move you," Anderson said. "It's the same idea. What we used to do with Rudi (Johnson) and then throw it to Chad and T.J."
The Ravens pounded it 43 times on the ground with 260-pound Le'Ron McClain (86 yards on 25 carries) and rookie Ray Rice (41 on 11) while getting four throws of at least 32 yards from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco threw for a career-best 280 yards and wide receiver Mark Clayton became the first player in seven years to have a 30-plus touchdown pass and catch in the same game.
Anderson didn't go against starting end Robert Geathers (IR) or Jon Fanene (switched to right end), but he did work against veteran tackle John Thornton moving to left end from tackle with four ends hurt.
When Anderson mulled retirement after he left the Bengals, one of the reasons he decided to keep playing is because Thornton told him he was still good for the game on and off the field.
"He's a good player. We went head to head a few times. There was some give and take," Thornton said.
Anderson, the man who spent 12 years and 181 games in Cincinnati, on passing downs also went against Josh Mallard. Mallard got here Monday and was playing his first game since last year. It was Mallard's 39th NFL start and he had 3.5 sacks playing in three games for Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in Atlanta and eight in Denver. But he hadn't played since this preseason, when he got cut by Denver.
"We're out there just trying to piece it together on defense and find some combinations that worked," Thornton said.
Anderson said he was impressed how Thornton and middle linebacker Dhani Jones kept rallying the defense in that long, black fourth quarter, and he could hear and see Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis running down the sidelines with each play.
"They were still coaching hard. Marvin was into it, hanging with it, and I think that tells you a lot about him," said Anderson, who didn't want to get into how far this offense has fallen. "It's a completely different team now. It's a team now where the defense is keeping them in games. They've got something to build on there with those guys."
Anderson brought in a postgame spread for his mates from the Fatburger restaurant he owns in suburban Cincinnati and he invited some of the home locker-room workers to get a bag to go. But other than that, it was business as usual.
Just on the other side.
He had joked earlier in the week he was going to look for his shovel when he showed up Sunday at PBS. The shovel was the symbol of the Bengals' hard hat resurgence in 2003 in the trenches of the AFC North.
"I didn't recognize anything down where the visitors are," Anderson said. "I'd never been down there before. It was kind of nice seeing where everybody was working and parking. But I couldn't find a shovel."
With four games left, the Bengals are still looking and Anderson is getting ready for a December to remember.
"It's good. This is what we all play for. The last several years, '03 through '06 with Marvin in Cincinnati," Anderson said from the podium, "we were playing for the playoffs. We were in meaningful football games in December, playing with a chance to play in January."
It seems like 181 games ago.