While teaching his ninth semester at Bengaldom State, head coach Marvin Lewis has used the team classroom at Paul Brown Stadium the past couple of weeks to not only go over current events but also offer a few history lessons in order to keep his team from mentally falling out of it while losing four of the last five.
It is a lecture series entitled "The Hot Teams," with the emphasis that the NFL is full of examples of teams catching fire late and going deep into the playoffs.
"'05 Steelers, '06 Bengals, '09 Jets, '08 Eagles," Lewis said as he walked out of his Monday news conference.
He had responded to the observation that everyone thought the '06 Bengals were dead after they lost those two games in Indianapolis and Denver and went into the season finale at PBS against the Steelers at 8-7.
The Chiefs won and the Broncos lost, just exactly the scenario the Bengals needed. All they had to do was win. Except with eight seconds left Shayne Graham missed his first field goal attempt inside 40 yards in two years and Cincinnati lost in overtime and the AFC's sixth and last seed.
"You tell me what happens with the other teams," Lewis said when asked if his team must win the last three. "If they all three lose all three games, we don't have to win them all."
The 7-6 Bengals are a game behind the 8-5 Jets, so in order for Cincinnati not to lose in tiebreakers the Bengals need to beat the Ravens at home in the season finale and the Dolphins to do the same to the Jets on Jan. 1. But Lewis's point is if it all sounds improbable, it also did for all those other teams in history.
And the Bengals saw it all close up.
The '05 Steelers won out to win the Super Bowl with eight straight after they lost to the Bengals on Dec. 4. The '08 Eagles tied a miserable 13-13 game in Cincinnati on Nov. 16, 2008 to fall to 5-4-1 and then won six of their last eight to come within a Kurt Warner miracle in the NFC title game to go to the Super Bowl. And after the Jets got drilled by the Patriots, 31-14, in 2009 to fall to 4-6, they lost one the rest of the way in a stretch that included back-to-back routs of the Bengals all the way to an AFC title game loss to the Colts.
"I think our guys realize the urgency of all of these games, and it's a bigger one this week," Lewis said of Sunday's 1 p.m. game in St. Louis. "We've got to go play. It's one game, and we've got to go play it. The Rams are playing tonight, and we know they'll be fired up at home and we know how important it will be."
With Seattle pounding St. Louis, 30-13, Monday night, Lewis is also going to have to guard against overconfidence, along with all the other demons after last Sunday's 20-19 Dr. Phil loss to the Texans on the last play. Lewis is going with the positive reinforcement strategy. He could have pounded his team for making another series of mental mistakes, but he also knows a couple of inches either way on third down and fumbles would have meant a healthy win.
That was never more evident when he took the inevitable attendance question. Never has a Bengals team played for so much before so little last Sunday when 41,202 watched for the second smallest crowd in PBS history.
"It's disappointing. I think people are missing out. I get excited and I can't wait for Sundays to watch our guys play, because I know it's going to be exciting," Lewis said. "I think you guys (the media) can do your part and get them there. We've got two more at home (Dec. 24 vs. Arizona, Jan. 1 vs. Baltimore). You can do your part in getting them there, because they're missing a great show.
"We've got guys all over the place making very, very good football plays. Yeah, we're disappointed we didn't win the football game, because that's what we're here to do, but there's a lot of good things. I think the guys feed off the energy. I thought the 41,000, or whatever showed up, were very loud and vocal. We've got to get them to be kind of quiet when we've got the ball down there on the goal line a little and understand that situation a little better. But I thought our fans that were out there have been tremendous. That's a good thing. You want to get back to having that homefield advantage each and every Sunday."
Last Friday, Lewis felt so strongly about his team's mental toughness that he declared the Texans game was his biggest in nine seasons here. But what unfolded was hauntingly familiar to '06 in Denver, when Chad Johnson's double move cost the Bengals a 75-yard touchdown pass to Chris Henry and Rudi Johnson fumbled on the way into the red zone for the clinching points while rookie quarterback Jay Cutler got the winning points on a 99-yard drive.
And the first false start of the game that was called on right guard Bobbie Williams on the six-inch line smacked of those Wild, Wild West days of '05 and '06 when the Bengals played, how shall we say, distracted?
"The false start on the goal line really wasn't Bobbie Williams's fault," Lewis said. "We don't need to incite the crowd; we need to get back in the huddle and get working and moving, because that play clock is going and we've got to give Andy (Dalton) the opportunity to get the ball and do the things that he needs to do to administrate what is going on. It's another lesson learned on that. It's very similar, unfortunately, to what happened a week ago in Pittsburgh. ... We were down in the play clock and then we're fooling around with the cadence too much."
But Lewis not only massaged the fans Monday, but his players in taking the blame for what unfolded. In the end, it came down to two false starts and the inability to make one play to stop a rookie quarterback in the fourth quarter.
"I felt like our players played extremely hard, and I'm disappointed that I didn't put them in the right positions to win the football game," Lewis said. "It's my job to get them in the right spots and help them through the critical points in the game to get us the win, and that was the thing I was most disappointed in. It's my job to put them in those situations. I didn't get it done.
"There were a lot of critical plays. You can take doggone near a dozen plays that mattered, and we have to make them. We made a lot of good ones. We did a lot of positive things. We had a couple 90-yard scoring drives. We would have liked for both of them to be touchdowns. We created turnovers. We had a chance to return two for touchdowns and we failed to do that. That's the biggest disappointment on my part. We had things right there and failed to do that."
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also took the upbeat, if not poignant route.
"This is not the first time I have been beaten on the last play of the game and it won't be the last, I'm sure," he said. "Like I told the players today, on Oct. 8, 2009, my wife passed away. I found out the world still is going to be going tomorrow. Today the sun came up, everybody kept going and so will we."
In the end, the Bengals make one play and they hold T.J. Yates to 13 points. Zimmer did get a season-high five sacks and four turnovers from a group missing its best cover cornerback (Leon Hall), best pass rusher (Carlos Dunlap) and one of its best run-stoppers in defensive tackle Pat Sims. Zimmer also got a good game out of safety Taylor Mays off the bench. Mays is supposed to be an in-the-box safety, but in the second half the coaches praised his work on tight end Owen Daniels in coverage when they decided the backers couldn't cover him.
"They are fighters, they will fight. They'll keep going. This is not the end all, be all, we've still got a long way to go," Zimmer said. "We've got good guys in the locker room, we've got guys who care. We've got guys that will continue to fight and as far as where we are, I don't know. We have played some darn good offensive teams and we have done some really good things and done some things not so good."
If last Sunday eerily felt like '06, then that last drive was haunted with '09 and '10. In '09 the Raiders and Chargers knocked the Bengals out of a shot for a playoff bye with drives in the last two minutes that erased wins or ties. In '10, the Bengals allowed points in the last two minutes of the half or game 13 times. During the offseason, Zimmer prepared a video of what he called situational plays emphasizing the last two minutes and the Bengals had been very good in those situations until Sunday.
"We just have to eliminate mistakes, make sure we are continuing to do what the good teams – you know, there are some situational football we talked about today in the meeting that we have to continue to get better at," Zimmer said.
But it just wasn't the last drive. There was the touchdown at the beginning of the second half that cut the lead to 16-10.
"There was a third and five, third and four that I zero-blitzed about on the 10-yard line and (tight end Joel Dreessen) caught it for the first down and they go in for the touchdown," Zimmer said. "That was a situation normally when you zero-blitz you give them a little bit of room, but in that situation down there by the goal line we probably should have been a little tighter and denied the routes.
"So there's still some situational football, obviously the last play of the game, we have to continue to get better at. At the end of the day that's what determines how good you are is how good you play situational football. For the most part all year long we've done that and we didn't do it as good yesterday."
The last play, a six-yard touchdown pass from Yates to wide receiver Kevin Walter, is a touchy subject around PBS. The Bengals went Cover 2 and while national analysts were saying that the Bengals linebackers were playing too deep on Walter's shallow cross, Zimmer wouldn't say.
"We had eight guys trying to cover five guys," Zimmer said. "You can rush, play five one-on-ones and hope they don't turn around and stick the ball in. You know, there was (No.) 81 (Daniels), I was concerned about him, I told them let's make sure we get 81 covered, he had a good fourth quarter there. We actually overplayed 81 a little bit and the guy slipped in."
Which was the point. Lewis and Zimmer were trying to stay away from negatives with their team still having a shot.
On Sunday after the game, Lewis said he was going to have to pump air into his deflated team. He then broke protocol and watched the game before going home. On Monday, he was refreshed.
Asked how his players were, he smiled.
"It was a good day," he said. "Today was a good day."