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'New' Bengals hope to catch Colts


               A.J. Green missed the last game against the Colts.

The numbers say the Bengals are a different team than the one that traveled to Indianapolis 71 days ago and produced an absolute zero in getting drilled 27-0 by the Colts.

Maybe more importantly for the Bengals when they bus to Lucas Oil Stadium for Sunday's Wild Card Game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), they believe they are a different team.

Different than the one that failed on their first 11 third downs while getting shut out for the first time in a game that mattered in 13 years. Different than the team that gained just 135 yards. The only game in this century where they had fewer yards in a game they were trying to win came against a Ravens defense coached by Bengals head man Marvin Lewis in 2000.

"We've got a different feel to us offensively. We've got a different feel to ourselves defensively than we did at the beginning of the season," said Lewis at his Monday news conference. "That's what's important now. Wherever we are, we've created our own identity that way and the same thing special teams wise. As the season goes on, you matriculate into certain things, so I think that's the key element of it -- we have a pretty good understanding right now of who we are, where we are, and now we've got to use it to our advantage."

Identity. Lewis kept talking about patience on Monday, but the true buzzword was identity.

The Bengals head into this postseason with the best running game in 12 seasons under Lewis. The 4.4 yards per carry is the best since 2000, rookie running back Jeremy Hill's four games of at least 147 yards is a franchise first, and their 492 attempts are the most since 2009. With 10 more runs than passes, it's the first time since '09 they ran it more than they passed it in the regular season.

(Until they betrayed themselves in the '09 Wild Card Game and ran it just 22 times in a 24-14 loss to the Jets.)

Don't look for that Sunday, although it's hard to get Lewis to say this team has the closest identity to the balanced offense successful playoff formula demands.

"I don't buy that. I think this is the identity of this group," Lewis said. "It helps in January on both sides of the ball (if you run the ball well). We have to play great – great – against the opposing quarterback as well."

 It will be recalled that when the Bengals limped back on to I-74 at 3-2-1, their running game was in shambles. They were just coming off a three-game stretch in which they averaged 20 runs and had run only 12 times against Indy for less than three yards per pop. Their backfield rotation of Giovani Bernard (93 carries) and Hill (40) had trouble getting in to a rhythm.

Plus, they also didn't have Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and while Green is fighting a concussion, Lewis made it sound like he's going to play Sunday.

"I think so. I believe so," said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, when asked if the Bengals are different than the Oct. 19 version.  "We have a team that runs the football. We have an identity. Hopefully we'll have all of our guys who are able to play back and ready to play. I don't think A.J. played the first time we played them. I know Jeremy Hill was not the starter the first time we played them. Other than that, I think we're about the same team we were. "

But what the few changes are massive. In those first six games, capped off by the trip to Indy, quarterback Andy Dalton averaged 32 passes per game to the Bengals' 27 runs. In the last seven games, it's almost flipped with Dalton averaging fewer than 30 throws and the Bengals averaging 34 runs.

 In the six games since Bernard came back from injury, Hill has 109 carries and Bernard 59.  On the way to finishing with 4.4 yards per carry, the most since 2000, in the last six games the Bengals are averaging 4.5 on the ground, fourth best in the league over that stretch

"There's a much different mindset. And there should be," Jackson said. "There should be a mindset that has some confidence. I mean we play in the AFC North and we played a very difficult schedule against some very good teams, just as this team did. We're not walking into something where we're going to be in awe and not understanding what's on the other side."

 Jackson admitted on Monday that the brutal ground game in Indy began the tilt the other way.

"They had a lot to do with that. I don't know that it solidified anything," Jackson said. "Probably more than anything it started to really make us see what we better become a little faster. Because they took it to us, and deservedly so. We didn't play good."

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is staring at his fifth post-season game in six years and he'll tell you this one feels differently, and not just because of the club's ability to run the ball. Starting in the game after the Cleveland implosion of Nov. 6, the Bengals were basically looking at elimination games if they wanted to stay in first place in the AFC North. In finishing 5-2, the Bengals didn't give up the hold on first until 3:51 left in the season, when Green fumbled at the Steelers 30 and the Bengals trailing, 20-17.

"We've had a heck of a month with a lot of challenging games and a lot of pressure," Whitworth said. "The biggest difference is this year, I think we've ended the season with the four biggest games we could play in, and two of the teams being in the playoffs – playing one of them twice and playing Denver and Cleveland – I think we're much more battle-tested right now.

 "We've kind of been through it, whereas in past years, we had it wrapped with maybe only one game (of note) to win. This month, we really had to buckle down and make our way in. I think this team's ready for that. We've played in big games and played two night games in a row, so I think this team is ready for that big stage. I think we're much more prepared this year than we have been in years past."

The elephant in the room, of course, is Dalton. Is he going to be the Dalton of New Orleans or the Dalton of Cleveland? He has yet to play well in the playoffs and in the last three weeks he's been tentative and inaccurate. His longest completion to a wide receiver has been 17 yards and his longest pass to anybody is a 22-yard touchdown pass to Bernard.

On Monday he said the Bengals feel no pressure as he carries that 56.2 post-season passer rating into Indy. On Monday, Lewis hinted that Dalton (and everyone else) have to be more patient and not force the deep ball. Note the 15-play drive Dalton took what the Steelers gave him.

"We understand what we're trying to accomplish. It's something that ever since I got here is something we've been trying to do," Dalton said. "We've got a good test this week and a good opportunity to go get our first win."

As for the lack of connection with Green, Dalton says, "I've just got to hit him. I think that's what it comes down to. I've got to give him a chance to go make a play."

On Monday Jackson said Green should have kept running on Sunday night's first interception and they just can't have the weekly floating high pass off Green's hands that turned into the second pick and eventually a Steelers touchdown on Sunday night.

"I think if I'm speaking for AJ, he probably saw the corner on top of him and thought if I keep running," Jackson said of the first pick. "I have no chance to get it so I'm going to slow down and get it and I think Andy was in the middle of throwing it so that's -- if you want to call it a miscommunication, that's a miscommunication. But you have to take care of each other in that situation, and we didn't."

Jackson isn't happy with the turnovers. He based his administration on cutting back from the 30 of last year, the 20 picks and 10 fumbles. This season they finished with 26, 17 picks and nine fumbles and that doesn't cut it. But Jackson knows that Dalton is a guy that just a month ago got the Bengals back in the race with three straight road wins with a 92 passer rating.

If the Bengals are truly different than the team that got blanked by the Colts, the running game will complement the quarterback. Remember, Philip Rivers came into Paul Brown Stadium last year and pulled a playoff upset throwing 16 passes.

"I expect a winning quarterback. Period. It's time to win. It's winning time. That's what it is," Jackson said.  "We haven't, and we need to do that. What else can you do other than win? We know what losing feels like. We need to feel what winning feels like.

"Andy Dalton is a good quarterback, and he has a tremendous future ahead of himself. I know the guy gets a lot of the blame, and I know he gets a lot of the heat when things don't go as well. And deservedly so. He plays quarterback. He understands that, and I understand that. We understand the position has to play good in order for us to win in these kinds of games. And I believe he will."

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