Michael Johnson in his first go around with the Bengals.
Right end Michael Johnson never sugarcoats it, so if you want to find out how the 27-10 loss in the 2013 Wild Card Game at Paul Brown Stadium impacts Sunday's home opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Chargers, he's one of the guys to check the pulse.
You have to put left tackle Andrew Whitworth in that category, too. He thinks that's the playoff game that got away of the four straight.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the Oakland Raiders in regular season week 1 09/13/2015
"Last year we weren't going to beat anybody we were so banged up," Whitworth said. "That first year in Houston with so many young players, that was tough and then we go back there next year and it could go either way, really, in a one-score game. But that one at home, that's the one that got away."
But Whitworth believes this is a different year. The Chargers scheme is the same and the personnel are very similar. Yet both are a season older and wiser.
"That year is over with. That was two years ago, now," Johnson mused after Thursday's practice. "Every game, each play is critical. And in the playoffs everybody is very hard on themselves. I had a couple of plays I wish I could get back. You can't. You wish you could. When you get in those situations again, hopefully you'll be ready to play better. Hopefully we can get to 2-0 and keep the train rolling."
And that's a pretty good temperature. They remember, but it's not overwhelming them. It does mean a lot to Johnson, though. For a long time, he thought that would be his last game as Bengal because he left the following March in free agency. But after a year hiatus, he's making his PBS re-debut and it means something.
"I was winded, but it felt great to be back out there with the guys winning again," said Johnson of his 38 snaps Sunday as he eased back from a sprained MCL.
Johnson remembers that 2013 season because the defense was so dominant at home as the Bengals racked up the first unbeaten season in PBS history. The league's No. 3 defense held foes to 23 percent on 24 of 104 third downs and were 4-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks while holding them to a combined 56.7 passer rating with just three touchdown passes. When the crowd roared the defense responded.
"Hopefully we can rekindle that and do it again. That was a special year," Johnson said. "I thought we were going to win the whole thing."
But Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers ended it all. A briskly efficient 12 of 16 passing. Just 128 yards. But a 118.8 passer rating with no turnovers aided by a running game that went for 196 yards on 40 carries in a sub-par defensive effort that came shockingly out of nowhere.
"I think we had a 50-yard run at the end that skewed the stats when we were up 20-10," said Rivers and Johnson was saying the same thing this week.
"Somebody was telling me they ran for 200 yards, but I know they had a long one late," Johnson said. "Still we gave up some yards."
Before running back Ronnie Brown took off on a 58-yard TD run to make it 27-10 with 2:17 left, the Chargers had rushed for 138 yards on 39 carries. That turned out to be for 3.5 yards. Good average. But too many carries. Only 16 first downs and 33-percent on third down. But, repeat. No turnovers. Bengals had four.
"They've got a real good zone (running) scheme now. They're bigger now than they were then," Johnson said. "We have to be ready for it. They want to get you going one way and cut it back the other."
With starting right guard D.J. Fluker out, 330-pound Chris Hairston makes his first NFL start at guard. Both tackles are 330, left guard Orlando Franklin is 320, and center Chris Watt is 310. And they'll be blocking for gifted rookie running back Melvin Gordon.
Johnson, no sugar-coater, knows what they have to do. He understands just how good his fellow Alabaman Rivers is.
"We have to get after Philip Rivers and try to disrupt him," Johnson said. "Great quarterback, great competitor. Never out of a game.
"We've got to stop the run," Johnson said. "We can't let him get that going because then he's in a rhythm."