The question is always asked the week before the home finale. Good year or bad year. And in this one, that big looming question mark of the upcoming Bengals offseason, it seems like everyone could be asked if Sunday's 4 p.m. game against the Chargers is their last Paul Brown Stadium game.
"It could be a lot of guys' last games," said quarterback Carson Palmer.
It is all speculation of course. There is plenty of that, given the head coach doesn't have a contract for next season, the NFL doesn't have one with the NFL Players Association, if the next collective bargaining agreement has rules like this one then 13 regulars don't have contracts for next season. And while the club's all-time leading receiver, Chad Ochocinco, has a contract for next year, nobody thinks the Bengals are going to activate the $6 million option.
"Sunday will not be my last time as a Bengal," The Ocho said this week, face straighter than the 50-yard line. "You can't let me go. I've got too much invested … it can now be revealed. ... I own 50 percent of the team. ... You can't let me go or I'll sue you."
Pretty good gag, but it underlines that nobody knows what's going to happen. It's even a question if Ochocinco will play his questionable finale because he missed the Wednesday and Thursday practices with a bad ankle that has bone spurs.
The Ocho had that right, too.
"You only know what's going to happen if you own the team," he said.
And Bengals president Mike Brown isn't saying. It is not only a guy like Ochocinco with cloudy futures, but also the quiet building-block types that have been here for most of it, like right guard Bobbie Williams and tight end Reggie Kelly. And then there are guys like running back Cedric Benson and linebacker Dhani Jones who came off the street to rebuild their careers and become centerpieces of a division champion. The first-round picks aren't immune, either. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is at the end of his five-year deal.
And he pretty much summed up what the other guys have been saying about a potential last game.
"It's all the same to me. Whether we play Pittsburgh, Baltimore, it doesn't matter," Joseph said. "First or last game. Doesn't matter. Same field, same lines, same ball."
Palmer is supposed to be one of those guys, but the Bengals don't look to be making any preparations to start all over again at quarterback.
"I don't think guys are really looking at it like that," said Palmer of a last dance Sunday. "There is always a chance you'll end up playing here again if you're on another team. But it's one of the last couple of games, one of the last couple of chances you'll get to play football for this year, and it's going to be awhile until we get to play again after these last two and I think that's more motivation than anything else. Our season is ending in a different way than we expected and had planned out in our heads. Everybody in this locker room enjoys playing football and is going to miss the game for who knows how long with the (uncertainty of the) CBA."
What we do know is that The Ocho is the most famous Bengal of all time and one of the most accomplished. With six Pro Bowls, only Anthony Muñoz has been to more. Ochocinco holds eight club records and needs 168 yards in the last two games to move into the NFL's top 25 of all-time.
But, as it has been during his decade with the Bengals, controversy has always dwarfed his numbers. So why shouldn't it now if this is his last PBS game? Ochocinco has been relatively quiet the last two years, but the nest was stirred this week when head coach Marvin Lewis called him "mopey," and The Ocho tweeted that he felt he'd been thrown under a bus. An animated Lewis on Thursday said it wasn't meant to be negative and that the media overreacted.
"He's made some unbelievable catches, great plays, a lot of great dance moves in the end zone," Palmer said. "It's been a good run for him. He's created a lot of good memories and been a great teammate."
Palmer and The Ocho have had their moments, good and bad, but Palmer wanted to make sure he wasn't putting anything in the past tense.
"He could be playing 16 more games here, or one more season, or whatever," Palmer said. "I don't know."
Join the club. Bobbie Williams has. After 119 starts as a Bengal, the last 66 straight, since coming over from the Eagles in free agency. He and Palmer are this year's offensive captains and they made their first Bengals start that same Opening Day in 2004.
"I haven't thought about it. Hopefully it won't be (the last home game)," said Williams, 34. "Right now, I'm just thinking about keeping at my craft, keep perfecting my craft. I'm looking at these last two games like a kid in a candy store."
That's about where we are. And it's an assortment.
LAUNCHING PAD:In his second game as a Bengal, fullback Chris Pressley opened some eyes with his blocking while helping running back Cedric Benson get to 150 yards last Sunday against the Browns.
Scanning his grade sheet, Pressley noticed a lot of plusses in what he surmised were about 30 snaps in a busy day that also included special teams. The plan had been for Pressley to be that busy the week before in Pittsburgh in his Bengals debut, but he only got about six snaps. He loves the work. In fact, he's probably the only Bengal that wishes Lewis would put the Bengals back in pads during the week. At this stage of the season, most teams have taken off the pads. If they have them on at all, it's for just one day of work.
"I like it because it helps you get your fits better," Pressley said of his blocks. "That's no excuse not to go out on Sunday and ball, but it just gives me a better transition when you put the pads on. But that's not really a big emphasis. The emphasis for me should be body position and fitting up. If you can do it when we're out there without the pads, it's going to help you be a better player in space when you go out there on Sunday."
Pressley is one of these guys that like to get coached. "I want to be a vessel. Whatever way they want to use me, just do it," he says. Running backs coach Jim Anderson is stressing "running my feet a little more, get better angles. … I think he's talking about getting a faster start instead of getting in games and taking a few reps to warm up."
Pressley also says he's an admirer of Benson's all-out running style: "He's a fun guy to block for, but he makes plays on his own, too, a lot of times."
Another young guy trying to make a mark is kicker Clint Stitser, who is December-for-December. He's made his first seven field-goal tries, but is trying to lengthen what have been very short kickoffs.
"It's all rhythm," Stitser said. "It's like a golf swing; it has to be the same all the time."
Stitser has no idea what is his longest streak of consecutive field goals: "I don't keep track of stuff like that because it doesn't help me make them."
HALL-MARK: Cornerback Leon Hall is always talking about the need for a short memory, but he knows what happened to him out in his hometown of San Diego last season when Hall and Joseph were at the end of brilliant seasons. Coming into that game the Bengals had allowed just five touchdown passes to wide receivers in the first 13 games. But the Chargers' Vincent Jackson became the only wide receiver to score two in a game against the Bengals last year when he beat Hall for a 21-yarder and a 34-yarder in the Chargers 27-24 victory.
"The first one was a double-move and I was a half-step behind down the sideline," he said this week. "The second one, I needed to get more depth after I jammed him."
So yeah, he remembers. But he won't focus on it.
"You want to watch the tape because we've got the same defense and they've got the same offense and you want to see how they attacked you," Hall said. "But you've got to make sure you're preparing for this particular game."
Although the 6-5 Jackson just returned from his holdout two weeks ago, he looked in top form last week against San Francisco when he caught five balls for 112 yards and three touchdowns. From what Hall sees, he's doing what he always does and that's get into position.
"They're all tall receivers, even their backups," Hall said. "They go up and get the ball. They either want it more or they jump higher and get it. You have to put yourself in good position and play the ball. Bat it down at worst, but obviously you want to get interceptions."
Bookending Jackson is the 6-5 Malcom Floyd, who has been bugged by hamstring problems and didn't practice the last two days. The 6-0 Patrick Crayton can run and look for old friend Kelley Washington (6-3) to get some snaps. Tight end Antonio Gates isn't expected to play, but quarterback Philip Rivers still has plenty of weapons. It was Floyd that made the 15-yard catch on Hall with eight seconds left that set up Nate Kaeding's winning 52-yard field goal.
"Most of these things are technique and correctable," Hall said. "I prepare the same way for every game. I go week-to-week and not try to force things and not go off how I played against certain teams."