Looking for a December to remember

Robert Geathers

Talking to vets like Robert Geathers and Andrew Whitworth, who have lived all but one of the Decembers, they think there is something a little more different, a little more special about this Bengals team about to embark on what they hope is their 28 days of Christmas.

"We're striding now. We're picking up some steam, some momentum and it's the right time for it," Geathers said.

Young but mature. Fresh legs but with enough reps. And—knock on wood—dinged but healthy.

"It's a different team. We're a young group and we've done a good job taking it one game at a time. I think that's helped us a lot," said Geathers, the left end and dean of the team with 129 Bengals games heading into the stretch.

"It's hard to get a handle on it. But I know this group; we do well with taking it one step at a time. There are a lot of pros in here and young guys looking to do well."

Listening to head coach Marvin Lewis lately has been like flipping through a calendar. We all know our months now.

"We had to overcome October," he said after Sunday's 34-10 victory over Oakland. "We had an OK November, so now let's have a better December. That's the key; we need to have a better December than we had in November. That's our key right now. That'll give us a chance for a great January."

Lewis is the picture of the 21st century coach. Plugged into iPads and iPhones, he studies it all. Everything from departure times for the West Coast to the corresponding won-loss record of the teams with the best yards-after-catch.

(As is their custom under Lewis, the Bengals are leaving a day early on Friday for the Dec. 2 San Diego game that begins it all.)

So you know he's studied December.

It has not been the kindest of months to his best Bengals teams. In his 10 seasons, this is the sixth time they start December better than .500. But the Bengals have yet to finish the schedule with a .500 month. They are 20-25 including the postseason in December/January under Lewis and haven't had a winning one since 2007, when they came in at 4-7.

(His best month is November at 23-17-1. Then there is September at 17-16 and October at 15-24.)

"I just know we need to be better in December than we were in November. That's my study. A very quick study," Lewis said.

When asked to elaborate, he smiled.

"If there were a journal on how to do it, I think it would be a best-seller," Lewis said. "Everybody would have it. At least it would be in 31 other places, I'm sure."

That's because Tom Coughlin of the Giants and Bill Belichick of the Patriots are keeping their journals private. Belichick, who has been to five Super Bowls in 11 seasons, says the NFL is a post-Thanksgiving league and Coughlin has won two Super Bowls in the last five seasons as a wild card. Eli Manning and Tom Brady help, of course.

But Lewis knows December ball is different.

"I think there's more urgency," Lewis said. "We've been in 11 football games, 12 weeks. Two weeks of training camp, four preseason games. So we've had 19 weeks of football thus far. The anticipation comes down to these last five now, and what they mean, and how important they are. We're in OK position. We're not in great position, but we're in OK position. And we've got to improve upon it each and every week."

The theories have been hit and miss down through the years, ranging from Lewis's tough practice regimens to immaturity to just plain bad luck with injuries. Geathers doesn't see any of that this trip.

"(Lewis) has been doing a good job of keeping us (fresh)," he said. "We're a younger team now. The CBA has helped with guys being fresher. We're without pads more in training camp (and the season). We should finish strong."

Lewis has always done a superb job of getting all of his teams ready to play any kind of game. But there have been times in December the mind has been willing but the body hasn't.

Last year the Bengals were without defensive tackle Pat Sims (ankles) and in December 2009 during the AFC North title run they were without defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) for long stretches, and Geathers was hampered by a knee problem. Sims missed the playoffs with a broken arm. In 2011 and 2009, safety Chris Crocker was playing hurt in December. Last year the middle of the offensive line was beat up and missing right guard Bobbie Williams (ankle).

Now the Bengals seem to be getting people back instead of losing them. Sims returned for the first time in nearly a year after the bye week with fresh legs and has boosted the run defense. Crocker had knee surgery in the offseason and didn't participate in spring ball or training camp, so he's got legs he hasn't had.

Center Kyle Cook has missed all season with an injured ankle, but he could be back to practice as soon as Wednesday and when he does get back he'll join a young interior line that looks to be the best the Bengals have had since the Steinbach-Williams days.   

Plus, they suddenly picked up a No. 1 draft pick in midseason when cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick got healthy. How deep are the Bengals in the secondary? Nate Clements, who has been playing both safety and corner, played just one snap last Sunday. The Bengals have been able to balance the age back there with the 32-year-old Clements and the 34-year Terence Newman teamed with Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones. Lewis said Monday that Clements is versatile enough to appear at any moment against any offense.

The club is dealing with a physical freak in Newman. He said back in training camp he felt like he was 26 and a half and he's playing every snap. On Sunday he played 98 percent of them.

And Geathers says the defensive line's rotation is keeping the big guys fresh. Sack leader Geno Atkins at tackle and Michael Johnson at right end played the most against the Raiders, but Johnson still was able to sit out 11 plays while Atkins got rested for 17. The Bengals had seven linemen play at least 15 snaps (right end Wallace Gilberry) all the way up to Johnson's 50. They're deep enough that during the winning streak they've sat two highly drafted defensive tackles in Devon Still and Brandon Thompson.

"I know up front we don't have guys taking as many reps. Everyone is rotating. Even Mike and Geno," said Geathers, who played 40 on Sunday. "It's taking a load off guys. We're deep. All around at every spot."

Crocker said a few weeks ago he thought this team had a run in it and he didn't see anything different after Sunday.

"We practice hard. I can't tell you how hard we practice. It would have been a waste to practice so hard and come in today and lose this ballgame," Crocker said after the game. "I thought we had a run because as quick as you can lose three or four you can win three or four. That's how this league is. The tough thing is when you lose games you're not supposed to. That was the pain in our butt. We were losing to teams that we were better than on paper and they out-executed us. Let's not have those bumps in the road."

Lewis is used to putting together runs. According to Jay Morrison of The Dayton Daily News, this is the seventh time in franchise history the Bengals have had multiple winning streaks of three games or more in the same year and three of them have come under Lewis.

The most recent came in 2009 when the Bengals had win streaks of three and four games on the way to a 10-6 record and the AFC North championship. They had a pair of four-game streaks in 2005 en route to an 11-5 finish and the AFC North title. The 2006 team had streaks of four and three and finished 8-8 when they lost three of their last four.

(The Bengals had win streaks of six and three in 1988 on the way to a 12-4 season that ended with a loss to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII. The 1996 team had a pair of three-game streaks and finished 8-8. And the 1976 team had streaks of three and five on the way to a 10-4 record.)

But Lewis thinks the three-game winning streak earlier in the year from Sept. 16-30 wasn't as decisive as the current one and he's hoping this team keeps the ability to finish.

"Those three games we won (earlier in the year), I don't remember there being necessarily a game that we put away, any of the three," Lewis said. "I almost came in here after those games, except for maybe the Jacksonville game, feeling like it wasn't a game we won even though we won it. You can't lose sight of how hard it is to win a game in the NFL week in and week out.

"We just have to continue to have a sense of finish and when we get the opportunity we need to close out games. Whether it be first downs, whether it be third-down stops, turnovers, sacks, whatever it may be, we have to continue to do that. I think we have a little better understanding of what it takes to do that, and now we have to go prove it and execute it. But talking about it in here or in that (locker) room doesn't matter. We have to go do it."

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