Posted: 9:15 a.m.
JohnsonPulse of the Bengals with what may be the defining game of the season a few beats away?
It seemed to be there as the Bengals prepared to play the Ravens Sunday for first place in the AFC North.
"I don't care about a fine. I want to talk about the game this weekend," said wide receiver Chad Johnson said Friday when asked about his latest transgression.
While right tackle Willie Anderson this week talked about "manning up," head coach Marvin Lewis discussed with his club the urgency of stepping it up.
"We have to play at a higher level," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "Sometimes playing good isn't good enough. That gets you beat by one or two, just like against Tampa Bay (by one) and Atlanta (by two)."
In losing two of the last three, have the Bengals played all that badly?
In the last three games, they have just one turnover and that didn't come until the final play of the last game. The defense held Tampa Bay to two touchdowns and in forcing Michael Vick to beat them from the pocket the Bengals held the Falcons to nearly 80 yards below their rushing average.
Offensively in Sunday's loss to the Falcons, the Bengals got a triple-digit passer rating game from Carson Palmer, a long passing score to Chris Henry and a touchdown to Johnson while allowing just two sacks, and have generated at least 305 yards in the past three weeks against rugged NFC South defenses.
But Tampa Bay beat them on one play at the end and Atlanta beat them on a couple of third downs while the Bengals have clicked on just seven of 24 third downs in the two losses.
And losses - close or blowouts - always unleash a litany of intricate questions. In the one win over the past three games (17-14 over Carolina), the Bengals ran it 30 times. In the two losses, they ran it a combined 38. The NFL leaders in turnovers the past three seasons, the Bengals have come up with just two in the last three games.
But overall they've played decently, and they have found it's not enough.
"It's what the coaches have been reiterating every day," said defensive end Bryan Robinson. "It comes down to a play or two that says (how) the game is going to come out. You can go back and identify a couple of plays that if you made, it's different."
Or, as Thornton said, "We're playing good teams. Somebody has to play great. They played great, we didn't."
"They," like Vick?
"He played great," Thornton said. "We didn't."
Certainly the Bengals know the importance of this one. They know the difference between going into the second half of the season two games behind the Ravens or going in as the AFC co-leaders with a 3-0 division record.
"I was trying to explain it to my wife," Robinson said. "The easiest way to make it to the playoffs is winning your division."
So Sunday is worth the obligatory cliché-ridden two games.
When the Bengals coaches approached Thornton last week and told him it looked as if his old Titans teammate, Ravens quarterback Steve McNair, isn't running as much this season at age 33, Thornton smiled and remembered how McNair sacrificed his body in those playoff runs.
"If it's a big game, he will," Thornton said. "I don't know if it's a big game for them. I know it's a big game for us."
Its clearly a money game.
The nameplate "Ocho Cinco" cost him $5,000 with the NFL office, but on Friday Johnson dismissed all discussion of it.
"Let's worry about the game Sunday and what I'm going to do to Ray (Lewis) and Chris (McAlister) and the rest," he said.