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Great Expectations

Posted: 4:40 p.m.



DENVER - All the trappings of the Marvin Lewis era are on display as his Bengals prepare for what is essentially their second playoff game in his four seasons.

A trip planned with the detail of a space shuttle launch. A team accustomed to playing big games in December and winning on the road. A calm franchise quarterback quietly willing his team to bounce back. A roster with a majority of playoff veterans.

Except for the itinerary, those are all the things an 8-6 Bengals team didn't have going into the final two-game stretch of Lewis' first season in 2003.

"You mean we haven't arrived yet?" retorted running back Rudi Johnson when asked if this is a defining game of the Lewis era. "We won the division and made the playoffs last year."

As the Christmas Eve game against the Broncos to secure the AFC's first Wild Card spot shapes up as one of the defining moments of the Lewis era, he finally has what he wants - a team disappointed it hasn't done more instead of giddy with just a playoff whiff.

"The expectations are different," Lewis said of those old growing pains. "They know what they're playing for and understand what it's all about. I think everybody (says) there's a bigger separation between the teams that do and don't. I think our guys realize it's a very small separation and all that separation comes down to plays. Little things that occur in games. They realize more and more what it is."

If this season holds true to form, the Bengals will respond to the devastating loss in Indianapolis with a strong performance. They beat Carolina with the pall of the Tampa loss still smoldering and they beat a hot New Orleans team on the road with their ears still burning from the second-half collapse against the Chargers.

Quarterback Carson Palmer, who admitted the Indy loss hit him harder than most, counseled patience.

"I'd like to have that one back. Everybody would. But you can't," he said. "So we just have to go out there and be aggressive but not stupid. We'll be OK."

Maybe because "we play better on the road for whatever reason," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "Except Indy. I'm not sure why, but we do."

If anything has made the Bengals a legit contender, it's how they play on the road. A win Sunday gives them back-to-back winning road records for the first time in 30 years. They were roadkill even when they were contenders, when the '88 and '90 playoff teams were 8-8 on the road.

Lewis is 16-15 on the road in four seasons, meaning he's two wins away from having as many road wins as Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau combined.

"We're comfortable on the road," Palmer said. "I have no idea why."

As usual, it starts and ends with Lewis, who works as closely with Bengals business manager Bill Connelly during a road week as he does with his assistant coaches.

No, Connelly didn't have to consult with Columbus when he coordinated his first road trip with the Bengals, but 1976 is still a long time ago.

Connelly has run trips for every Bengals head coach but Paul Brown, yet he's got a pretty good idea how the franchise founder did it because his first year was Bill "Tiger" Johnson's first year taking over for Brown.

"Tiger probably did it pretty much like Paul did and Marvin is the closest thing to how they did it," Connelly said. "He sticks more with the schedule. There are no surprises. And it's the same thing every week. There isn't a lot of freelancing."

Lewis did call an audible a few weeks ago when he decided to take the team here a day early on Friday night. But that also stayed true to his philosophy that if it's a long road trip, leave early. It's the first time the Bengals have had to do it since three West Coast trips in 2003.

It almost didn't come off because of Wednesday's blizzard. If the Denver airport had opened a little later on Friday, the club would have had to fly out Saturday because there were no rooms Friday night at the team hotel.

Still, Delta backed up the club's charter takeoff to 11:30 p.m. Friday until Joe Ruiz, the airline's representative to the Bengals, dipped into his bottomless supply of tricks and got it close to the original 9 p.m. departure.

So when the Bengals landed in a Winter Wonderland about 10 p.m. Mountain Time, Lewis' itinerary was humming.

While strength coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver made sure the players knew there was a snack available at the hotel, Connelly planned to do his first of two bed checks for the weekend with Lewis.

Connelly's best guess is Paul Brown never went on a bed check. Indeed, Connelly can't remember a head coach doing it himself until Lewis. Lewis insists on Connelly for company, and sometimes they also split up which rooms they take every couple of weeks.

"A lot of times Marvin will stop in for a few minutes to see how guys are doing and if they need anything if he knows a guy's got an injury," Connelly said.

They're pretty sure no one is going to sneak out after they leave (or sneak in for that matter) because one of Lewis's first acts was to station a security officer on the players' floors.

From chapel to the carbs and Gatorade at the snacks, Lewis' schedule never deviates. The wakeup call is a half hour before breakfast and treatment. Chapel the night before is an hour before the offense and defense meet.

"Every little bit helps," Connelly said. "It all means something. But we all know what wins is good players."

Which is the way Thornton has it figured out. He says his team traveled the same way when he played in Tennessee. Fellow tackle Sam Adams lived the same thing in Baltimore because Lewis took some of his organization from Ravens head coach Brian Billick. Who took some of his from Bill Walsh.

Who took some of his from ...

Paul Brown.

So it's not the itinerary. It's the depth chart.

Look what happened when Lewis took great pains to get his team to Indianapolis earlier than usual this week even though it was a Monday night game so his club could walk through the RCA Dome.

It lost by three touchdowns.

What surprised Adams is how the Bengals came out for that game.

"Skittish," he said. "You would think that with all that's gone on around here on and off the football field, that wouldn't be the case."

The Bengals won at Pittsburgh last year to take control of the AFC North and they clinched the division on the road in Detroit. This season they won four of their first six on the road including a decisive win at playoff-bound New Orleans.

Now they can't get around it. If the Bengals want to go to the playoffs, they have to win another one of those on Sunday.

"We haven't won a big game yet," said Adams, who quickly remembered one. "New Orleans was a good team. This is one of those games against a good team we should beat. We'll see."

A total of 19 players on Sunday's 53-man roster were with Lewis when the Bengals lost the last two games of the '03 season to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs on the last day. It's a better team playing a better schedule, but what if it's the same result?

"It's a playoff game for us," said cornerback Tory James. "And we've got guys who have been there."

That may be the defining moment of the Lewis era even before they play.

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