Updated: 3:20 p,m.
Not only does Marvin Lewis believe Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the AFC South-leading Texans is the biggest Bengals game in his nine seasons as head coach, but he believes this stretch run is markedly different than others because of his club's aggressive approach.
With his 7-5 new-look Bengals pitted against the 9-3 Texans (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700), Lewis sees a clear turning point in his second biggest rehab project on the job. While Andy Dalton bids to become the first rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger to win at least eight games while throwing 20 touchdown passes, Lewis sees his team embarking quicker than ever into the new era that was plotted in the wake of Carson Palmer's retirement threat last January.
Much like his first season of 2003 when the Bengals went from 2-14 to 8-8. And he compares Sunday's game to the watershed PBS game against the unbeaten Chiefs that season, when the Bengals went to 5-5 with the upset and solidified his rebuilding process.
"Yes. Very good," he said. "It's a rebirth. It's a big game to win now because of what it means and how it continues to keep us moving forward."
Lewis went as far to say it was his biggest game in 20 seasons of coaching in the NFL. Even bigger than Baltimore's Super Bowl victory over the Giants when he was Ravens defensive coordinator.
"I wasn't worried about winning that one," Lewis said. "I knew my side was there. It was alright. My opinion it's our biggest game in nine years."
Lewis raised some eyebrows with a group of reporters after Friday morning's practice when he said the game against the Texans is even more important than the two Wild Card games in PBS in 2005 and 2009.
"There was a finality to that," Lewis said. "This is important because it can springboard us to where we need to go. Not just end, but we can build upon this game. Winning this game allows us to keep building. These guys have worked extremely hard and this is an opportunity to reap the benefit from how hard they've worked."
The win over the Chiefs thrust the Bengals into the playoff race, but it was a tough 1-3 December punctuated by an upset home loss to the Browns in the finale that robbed them of any shot of catching the 10-6 Ravens on the final day.
And it set a tone. The Bengals have been at .500 or better before or after the first game in December six times under Lewis and have made the playoffs twice. The Bengals are 18-22 in December and January, but Lewis has enormous confidence heading into this stretch with Dalton and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, another rookie that has performed brilliantly.
"The thing you have to look at is players play and coaches coach and what we have to do is make sure we continually plan aggressively, aggressively call, aggressively approach every situation," Lewis said. "I feel our change offensively has been to do that. I think we're in that mode. That's what we do. We move people around, we put them in (different) formations. We aggressively attack the defense all the time. To me that's what you've got to keep doing. You can't pull back. There are no reasons to pull back. Move it forward because that's what these guys want to do.
"You have to come in and have to be new; have to be different. We have to have (tight end Jermaine) Gresham out there (wide)."
The Bengals are also moving around wide receiver A.J. Green like they could never do before with wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and while Lewis loved the throwback pass call to running back Bernard Scott a few weeks back, Lewis said, "Bernard Scott has to catch the ball … that's the other step we need to take and finish it that way."
Lewis has confidence in Dalton running the show as he makes his 13th NFL start Sunday and says the Bengals offense is better geared to be more balanced and unpredictable.
"The quarterback handles all that," Lewis said. "He processes it, he handles it. It's good for him. It keeps his mind working."
And, of course, there is no thought that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to pull anything back.
"I don't worry about that part," Lewis said.
While the stretches have been tough, the Bengals have been excellent at PBS under Lewis in December, when they are 12-5. He says that's one of the main differences from '06, when they lost their last three to blow a Wild Card spot, and '09, when the Bengals lost four out of their last six to lose out on a playoff bye before losing their first-round game.
In '06, two of those last three were on the road and in '09 three of the last four were on the road compared now to three of the last four at PBS.
INJURY UPDATE:If Lewis sticks to the status quo Sunday, left end Carlos Dunlap is going to miss his third straight game and fourth in the last five with a hamstring problem while cornerback Nate Clements has a shot to play if he doesn't suffer a setback in Friday morning's practice.
Dunlap was labelled as doubtful and Clements went questionable. While Dunlap was working on the side, Lewis almost always doesn't play players that have missed an entire week of practice.
Lewiis wouldn't elaborate, but said Clements "did well."
He also said rookie linebacker Dontay Moch, being evaluated for migraines, seems to have turned a corner and could be back at practice next week.
Clements went back to work after sitting out the last three practices with his own hamstring injury that knocked him out of last week' s game. Running back Cedric Benson (foot) returned after sitting out Thursday and he was probable.
The one surprise was running back Brian Leonard (knee) listed as questionable after he missed Friday's practice.
And it was no surprise that Texans Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson (hamstring) has been ruled out.
"It's very disappointing," Johnson said Friday. "You work your butt off to get back after missing six games and then to have something like this to happen again is very frustrating. But at the same time, the team's in a great position and I'm just trying to do everything I can to get back, so that I can get back out on the field and play."