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Mile High miles away for revamped Bengals

Robert Geathers

The Bengals go a Mile High on Sunday in Denver, but they are light years away from where they were the last time they went to the mountain five years ago.

If you want to truly see how much head coach Marvin Lewis has dug up his roster and tried to make it different from the teams that marked the early part of his tenure, check out the flip card from that Christmas Eve game of 2006.

You'll only recognize one name on offense, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and four on defense. All up front in defensive linemen Robert Geathers, Domata Peko, Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker.

"It's different; way different," Geathers said as he looked around the locker room before Thursday's practice. "Everybody is going for the same objective. It's a different mindset."

It was a formidable team that went to Denver just five years ago. Off an 11-5 AFC North title in '05, the Bengals went on a 3-0 and 8-5 run to start '06 with five players named to the Pro Bowl. Yet they lost the last three to go 8-8 and that team's effectiveness unofficially died in the swirling snow of Mile High that seemed to be whispering it takes more than talent.

Even with all that talent, the Bengals couldn't overcome four turnovers, a ghastly pre-snap penalty that cost them a 75-yard TD pass, and a stunning botched extra point with 41 seconds left that all seemed to send the message there's more to winning than winning.

"We weren't ready; we weren't mature enough yet," Whitworth said. "That's not really an issue here with the maturity these guys have played with and that includes on and off the field. I feel like this is a much more mature team now."

And Whitworth will debate that if lined up, this team is as talented, if not more, than that '06 club that lost 24-23 to the Broncos. On defense, it's not even a question. And on offense, except for an incumbent Pro Bowl quarterback, he sees upgrades at running back, fullback and tight end. An emerging offensive line and wide receivers have the same type of talent and can reach the same levels eventually, Whitworth says.

"Not in years of experience, but look at on the line," Whitworth said of the right side of Clint Boling and Andre Smith, center Kyle Cook and left guard Nate Livings.

"You've got good, young athletes that are coming in and playing like (Boling) and Andre and Cook. Nate is playing great. The talent is there. I think you can make a legitimate argument that we're more talented in a lot of spots."

But it is the feel of the team that has Geathers excited. Maybe because it is more suited to his low-profile style. If Lewis called Sunday in Cleveland a "Ced Benson-type day," then it was also a Robert Geathers-type day on defense. He quietly hammered out 38 professional snaps as he fought an injured shoulder while playing both end and tackle.

"He played a great game, very solid in there," Lewis said after Thursday's practice. "He plays the run the way we do and does a nice job setting up the other guys."

Geathers admitted that he's talked to others in the locker room about how the playoffs kept eluding those teams and they finally concluded, "It's hard to put a hand on it."

But at the ripe old age of 28, Geathers thinks this Bengals team has what those teams didn't. An NFL locker room is the only place on earth where a 28-year-old is routinely referred to as "Old Man," and yet Geathers understands.

"Chemistry has a lot to do with it," he said. "It's like the leadership we have. It's under the radar with guys like Whit. The young guys are going to follow us. We come in, go to work, put last week behind us and only think about the next week. That's important and that's the way this locker room is.

"It's not like guys are worried about how many catches they're getting or anything like that."

Whitworth agrees. The team never recovered from losing that one in Denver or the next week in the finale when it missed a last-second field goal before losing in overtime to Pittsburgh, and it carried over to the '07 hangover of 7-9.

"Any time you think you're good and you're not mature enough when you get your teeth kicked in … I don't think that team (handled it)," Whitworth said. "We got mad, but we didn't know how to make it go our way and we couldn't."

It's not lost on Whitworth that the game he and his teammates played last Sunday in Cleveland was just the opposite of that Denver game in '06. There wasn't a motion penalty that wiped out a touchdown, a fourth-quarter fumble inside the 40 on what would have been the winning drive, or an end-zone interception early in the game.

Instead, the young Bengals didn't commit a turnover and only had three penalties in a building that may not be as hostile as Mile High but can be plenty loud, too.

Whitworth thinks that reflects the kind of guys they have, too.

"Let's be real," Whitworth said. "It was a zoo at times in this place."

But on Wednesday he talked about how these Bengals are taming those old ways.

"Really what we are trying to do is be a football team that is going to execute, not make mistakes, play physical, nasty fast-style football; that's really going to be our style this year," he said. "We want to make as little mistakes as possible and make people pay every time they get in our way. That's the way we want to go about it this year and that's what we are trying to get all these guys to understand the style of this team is going to be.

"We realized now that we are a physical football team if we can go out and execute the way we want to execute and just be able to play fast and physical and not have any penalties and such we can be a really good football team. I think these young guys have fallen right in line."

Now the Bengals are hoping the new roster can get a different result in the place it all went awry.

"I like what's going on here," said Geathers, not sounding old at all.

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