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Hard road leads to postseason


Posted: 7:15 a.m.

After it was over, after another heart-stopping victory in this season of the heart, Cedric Benson, still in full uniform with the grime and punishment of the Bengals' 17-10 division-clinching victory hanging off him, walked to Carson Palmer's locker and stuck out his hand.

"I just wanted to tell him it's been an honor and a privilege to play with him," Benson said. "And that I admire his skills as a quarterback. He's a great quarterback. I was just telling him thanks."

If there was ever a reason why this team has hung together through so much adversity, this was it. Right guard Bobbie Williams, one of seven players left from the 2005 AFC North champions, explained the difference in a happy but subdued locker room saddened by the past and hopeful of the future.

"The maturity and no egos. This team is tighter than '05," Williams said. "It's more as a family versus a lot of individuals with talent. This team is tighter. More genuine."

One of the reasons is Andrew Whitworth, who not only emerged as a top-flight left tackle this season but also as one of the team's more valuable locker-room leaders. On Sunday he refuted the critics who were already ripping such a lackluster win over a 3-12 team.

"I don't know how many NFL teams could do what we did today," Whitworth said. "To me it shows how good of a team and how resilient of a team we are. We flew back from the West Coast Sunday. Then we flew to and from New Orleans on Tuesday. We didn't have a day off, really, and that was really tough emotionally in New Orleans. And we came out here and did what we had to do and I'm not sure a lot of teams could have done that."

Head coach Marvin Lewis ordered no Gatorade shower to emphasize winning the AFC North isn't the final goal. But the biggest difference between '05 and '09?

Four years ago the Bengals folded at the first hint of adversity. Now, adversity has suited up with them virtually every week. When they had to clinch the title on Sunday in a game they lost their third defensive starter for the season with rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga's broken ankle, and when they had to start their winning drive 99 yards away, the metaphors were paint-by-the-numbers easy.

"Nothing has been easy," said running back Brian Leonard. "We like to bring every game down to the end."

At the end, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who lost his wife suddenly early in the season, continued to call games impeccably. For the 10th time in 15 games this season a Bengals foe scored 20 points or less. In the end, a pass offense that has struggled without wide receiver Chris Henry for the past six weeks and has had to deal with his death for the last 10 days, mustered just enough after relying on the sheer will of Benson.

The one-minute video display honoring Henry just before the national anthem was brief and touching with Foreigner's "Living in a Dream" as a soundtrack. And it had impact on the sideline that had traveled to his New Orleans home to pay their respects.

With the words "I'm no different than you/You don't have to understand/We've all had our problems/Now I need a helping hand/Won't you come and rescue me," reverberating through a hushed stadium, the Bengals got hit again with emotion.

"It was great and it should have been done, but I'm just saying it was tough for some of the guys," Whitworth said. "I think it brought all of Tuesday back and that was another thing we had to get over. But it's part of it and we did."   

Amid the turbulence, Benson has been a bull in this season the Bengals committed to the run and then have had to rely on it when the passing game faltered. He had 133 more yards Sunday on 29 more carries and is just 49 yards shy of a 1,300-yard season despite missing two games after setting the Bengals record with six 100-yard games in the same season.

"We made some good halftime adjustments," said Benson of the counter to a Chiefs defense that blitzed their linebackers and safeties seemingly every play to stop the run. "They weren't going to let us do what Cleveland did to them last week (when the Browns ran for 351 yards) but we kept pounding it in there. We didn't shy away from it and that's good."

The biggest play of the game might have been the first snap of the second half. Unable to get anything going with just 53 yards of offense in the first half, the Bengals turned to Benson and he ripped off 32 yards when he went up the middle and cut it back to the left with safety Jon McGraw in the box and fullback Jeremi Johnson putting his helmet on a linebacker. 

"It was a zone play. I made a cutback, but it wasn't that big of a cutback," Benson said. "It was a foot or two. The safety was already down in the box. He was in the open hole and I just made a step at him. Luckily the linebacker (on Johnson) stuck his head on the back side and I was able to take it play side."

Palmer may have been at his point guard best in that final drive of 7:18. He hit six of seven passes for 63 yards. But he also got 30 yards from Benson, 20 on a signature run in which he got about half the yards after contact.

"The guys said when we went out there, 'OK Ced, take it 98,' " Benson said. "Then after the second play they said, 'OK Ced, take it it 99.' That's all.' ''

"When we went out there we looked at each other and we know we were going to score. We knew we were going to go 98," Whitworth said. "This team has done it all year. It's what we're all about."

Whitworth, No. 77, had to laugh. There were seven runs and seven passes in the drive.

"You know what that adds up to? Seventy-seven. I'm taking credit for it," he joked.

But the conclusion is no joke. The Bengals are at their best balanced and they desperately need to get out of the receivers on every drive what they got out of them in that last drive.

"We started throwing the ball more in the second half," Palmer said. "More runs were called in the first half. Guys did a great job getting open. Laveranues (Coles) did a great job winning one-on-one, Quan (Cosby) made a big play on third down, and Chad (Ochocinco) made a great play on the touchdown. Today, we just made plays more often in the second half than we did in the first."

Palmer hit his top three receivers for third-down conversions in the drive. The six-yard touchdown to The Ocho was a great play by two Pro Bowlers. Palmer had to throw it slightly behind him with McGraw lurking on the other side and Ochocinco had to adjust and lean back.

Palmer, of course, sets the tone. Caldwell, who caught game-winners from Palmer in the last 22 seconds to beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh earlier this year, shook his head.

"With him, you can't tell if it's the fourth quarter or first quarter," he said.

"It was as calm as it was on the first drive of the game," Palmer said of The March. "We have guys on this team that have played in that type of situation before. No matter how big or insignificant the game, we have guys that step up when it's time to go. We have players who accept their roles and do their jobs. We don't try to play too hard. We don't get scared. We don't get shy. We understand there is a job to do, and we each must do our individual jobs and execute each play. That is what we have done on a number of game-winning drives this season." 

And if the offense adjusted, what about the defense? They already didn't have two starters for this game in tackle Domata Peko and safety Chris Crocker. They've already lost two starters in defensive end Antwan Odom and safety Roy Williams. Then they lost Maualuga for the year late in the first quarter.

"In the offseason you build a team knowing that everybody isn't going to make it through and that's been evident by who has stepped up this year," said middle linebacker Dhani Jones, who has kept it all together and was all over the yard Sunday with a team-high eight tackles.

"When Tank (Johnson) got hurt, Pat Sims came in and now with Peko out Pat is back in there," Jones said. "(Jon) Fanene has stepped in for Odom and when Roy got hurt there was the rotation with Chinedum (Ndukwe). Now with Crocker out, it's Tom Nelson."

And now it is Rashad Jeanty on running downs and Brandon Johnson on passing downs at SAM backer. Both have started before and on Sunday they helped force six punts and hold Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel to 180 yards passing.

Maybe the biggest adjustment of all during the week was pulled off by the head coach. The hard-driving Marvin Lewis told his players, "I've got you," and he did and he backed off them. And he's got them this week because he's giving them Monday and Tuesday off.

"I knew we were going to need some energy this week. We knew Tuesday was going to be a long day. I knew after the disappointment of the (San Diego loss), it was hard," Lewis said. "You've got to mount back up, but it can't be the same message. We had to gather back up again and get going. I had to trim things out of practice; we just couldn't be the 'same-old, same-old.' I think the guys did a good job responding to that. We were off the practice field 20 minutes early on Wednesday and 15 minutes on Thursday, and we moved right through things yesterday and Friday. With the holidays coming up, we were able to get them finished earlier in the day, and that's what I meant — I'm going to take care of you, and you just keep working, and you'll be OK physically."

It was appreciated.

"He shortened up a couple days this week," Palmer said. "We were released from practice 15 minutes early one day, and he cut a couple plays out of practice this week. Fifteen minutes makes a difference. It is better than nothing."

That's something else that wouldn't have happened in '05.

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