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Midseason tests

Chris Crocker

Posted: 10 p.m.

At 7-2, these Bengals have gone where no stripes have gone before. A 5-0 division record and a 4-0 road record built with a Woodstock locker room of peace and love.

Now that '60s lovefest faces twin 21st century tests with the arrival of a controversial superstar in running back Larry Johnson and the ultimate trap game on the road against a Raiders team brimming with untapped talent at 2-7.

"For the team that we are, this is a game we should win," said former controversial Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. "This is what good teams do. It's no secret. The good teams win the games they should win and steal a couple on the road. You know how it goes. We're not overlooking them. They're a very good opponent ... ask Philly."

Indeed, this is the kind of game the 2007 team lost enough to dribble themselves out of contention at 7-9. The Bengals lost on the road to a four-win team (Kansas City), a five-win team (San Francisco) and a seven-win team (Buffalo). They take care of business and there are 10 wins.

But now they have guys like safety Chris Crocker. In six previous seasons he's never played on a team that won more than seven games. He can end that Sunday.

"We've got guys on this team who know what it's like to have a bad record," said Crocker the day after the Pittsburgh win, recalling that he arrived here when the Bengals were 0-7 last year. "You've got guys playing hard. They're trying to save their jobs. It won't be easy."

Crocker's point is that guys like him, rejected and traded and on their last chance, make this locker room different than before and even different from those around the NFL. They're not viewing the Johnson move with suspicion but with the acknowledgement that the front office thinks the team is close enough to the Super Bowl to make such a move. Crocker called on the quote of another Johnson, teammate Tank.

"Tank said it best," Crocker said. "We have a window of opportunity and every day it gets smaller. I'm not saying we're going to go all the way, but we have a shot. They realize it's important upstairs. Every move is really important."

Larry Johnson, fresh from getting cut in Kansas City after some miserable off-the-field experiences, joins a locker room full of guys on their second chance. Crocker thinks that's why it won't be a problem.

"In this locker room, we don't judge guys on the past, we just take what we know," Crocker said. "It's like when (Terrell Owens) goes to another place and they say, 'We have a locker room strong enough to contain his personality.' But they don't have guys that have experienced that in the locker room and you see it always goes wrong because they don't have anybody that's been in that situation previously to help that guy out."

But tight end J.P. Foschi doesn't think it's an issue that this team will ever have to face. He played with Johnson for seven games in Kansas City last season and while he played only special teams and had just a nod-and-hello relationship with him, Foschi thought he was fine in the room.

"He wasn't divisive or anything like that with his personality," Foschi said. "He was quiet. He wasn't outspoken and loud and he was good with the guys."

Or, as The Ocho said, "There's nothing wrong with having another bullet in the chamber."

Foschi is careful to note that he doesn't know the details of Johnson's problems in Kansas City, but he's got some educated guesses.

"It seemed like a frustrating situation for him," Foschi said. "The organization was trying to rebuild, trying to find its way. Maybe he got distracted by all that. He was good with the guys. He interacted. He tried to help guys when they needed help, it seemed like.

"I sat back on it last night and watched the press conference and it can't hurt. Things happen this time of year like this where guys have to step up. I think we've got too many leaders in this locker room and too many guys are focused on our goal for something to happen but I don't think we're going to have to worry about it."

Which is pretty much where quarterback Carson Palmer is coming from. He's been saying since the spring that head coach Marvin Lewis has put together a superb locker room, and he doesn't feel like the Johnson move has been a distraction.

"He's always harping that this is our team, talking to the players saying, 'This is your team,' '' Palmer said. "He's the head coach and he runs things, but the best teams are run by the players as far as keeping guys under control, making sure guys are working, making sure guys are in the right places at the right times. That's the type of locker room we have and the type of team we have. I think he's right saying this is a much more mature and a much more veteran team than he's had in the past.

"There's another guy in the locker room and he's going to try to help out, try to stay on this team as long as possible and try to be as involved as he can. Whether it's him or picking up a guy on the practice squad, guys are just trying to fit in. When guys come in to a team that's winning and things are going well, for the most part they don't want to come in and be a distraction. They just want to do what they're told and do their role, and I'm sure that's the type of guy Larry will be, or whoever else we'll pick up throughout the year."

Now the idea is to stay a team that is winning by not suffering a letdown the next three weeks in Oakland, and one-win teams at home in Cleveland and Detroit. Palmer, who told the world after Sunday's game his team wasn't good enough to make a playoff push, lived out Lewis' mantra. He talked about the Raiders almost reverently.

"From the offensive side of the ball, looking at these guys, they're a sleeping giant. They're a very good defensive football team," Palmer said. "Very good players all over the place, the best corner in the game. They've got Richard Seymour and fast linebackers, fast safeties, a powerful, fast defense. So we've got our hands full on offense.

"As far as the offensive side of the ball, this is not a letdown game, this is not an easy game. This is going to be a grind. We're going to have to come in and be extremely physical. We're going to have to execute on third down, we're going to need to take care of the ball because they've got a lot of playmakers on their side of the ball."

Crocker knows what the experts are saying. These are the same experts that never favored the Bengals in what turned out to be a four-game sweep of division heavyweights Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

"I think people are expecting us to fall on our faces," Crocker said. "The thing we talk about among ourselves is that we don't read too much positive stuff. People are on the bandwagon now. ... This could be one of these games where everybody is expecting the Cincinnati Bengals to fall on their faces. They say we were up for our division opponents, but now we'll lose against some team that isn't supposed to beat us. We'll be ready."

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