'It's a new season'

Nate Clements

Snapshots from a playoff locker room:

Bengals rookie Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, still wondering how his No. 18 jersey didn't get torn off in the end zone as the Ravens manhandled him in the final 10 seconds of Sunday's 24-16 loss at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium, knew he had another shot.

"It's a new season," he said after losses by the Jets, Broncos and Raiders pushed the 9-7 Bengals into the sixth AFC seed with their first Wild Card berth since Paul Brown coached his final season in 1975.

The Bengals have a return date at Houston next Saturday (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) against the team that beat them with two seconds left on a touchdown pass by rookie T.J. Yates at PBS on Dec. 11. Yates separated his non-throwing shoulder in a 23-22 loss to Tennessee but is expected to play against the Bengals. If the Bengals win, they go to Foxboro to play an 8 p.m. game Jan. 14 against the Patriots.

Cincinnati's last playoff win came against a team from Houston back on Jan. 6, 1991. The Oilers went down, 41-14, at Riverfront Stadium.

It certainly matters to Bengals cornerback Nate Clements that he lost his 165th NFL game. But making the playoffs for the first time in his life meant a lot more after 11 seasons of going home after the 16th game.

"This game is behind us," Clements said. "We're in there. That's all that really matters to me and this team."

The Bengals defense realized before the offense that the Bengals were going to the playoffs for the second time in three years because they were on the sidelines when the 63.439 reacted to the Chiefs beating Denver.

"The crowd went wild and I asked somebody, 'Was that a flag on that play?' " Clements said. "And then somebody said that Denver lost, we're in. it doesn't matter. I still wasn't sure until we came into the locker room and then it was confirmed."

Head coach Marvin Lewis asked Clements to speak to the team Saturday night and the 32-year-old Clements said he embraced the opportunity. The closest he had come was in the 2004 finale with the Bills. Buffalo lost and didn't get the help the Bengals got on Sunday.

"It was genuine and very sincere," said safety Chris Crocker. "Just how hard it is to make the playoffs when you look back on your career. The only time it had been this (close) for him was eight years ago. Look at how long ago that was. Then you look at how we made it today and it's just wow. There's no word to put on it."

Defensive tackle Domata Peko thought there were two words.

"Mixed emotions," Peko said. "Happy and sad. I don't know what the heck to feel."

As he left the locker room, rookie quarterback Andy Dalton shook Peko's hand.

"Good stuff," Dalton said.

"Good job, Uso," Peko said using the Samoan word for buddy. "You're going to have many more."

Then when Dalton was gone Peko said, "I love that guy. He came in here with big shoes to fill and he did it. He carried the offense. He's going to be great."

Dalton not only became the first rookie quarterback in history not drafted in the first round to make the playoffs, but also the first one to start 16 games. Now he's headed to his hometown of Houston to start his first playoff game, where he's 3-0 at the Texans' Reliant Stadium. Two wins in high school. One for TCU.

And it's the first Bengals road playoff game in 21 years; since they lost the Bo Jackson AFC semifinal to the Raiders in Los Angeles in the game Jackson suffered a career-ending hip injury.

"We definitely haven't played our best game yet," Dalton said. "That's what we're working for. We have to go put it all together. And just let it all out."

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who along with Peko ran the voluntary voluntaries during the lockout, wondered about the non-call on Green, as well as a couple of others.

"If felt like we were playing two teams out there," Whitworth said. "But it goes that way sometimes. We've got a chance. We're in the playoffs. That's all we set out to do."

Whitworth pulled Peko aside in the locker room when word filtered through that the Chiefs had lost.

"I told him how proud I was," Whitworth said. "We started this thing back in June putting OTAs together ourselves. It's been a long journey with all the crap we had to get their attention off of. Who was leaving? Who was coming? Who's not staying with us and all that. To be where we are, who would have believed it? We've got our future in front of us."

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