The down-hill physicality of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has helped the Bengals rule the NFL's most punishing division.
Rey Maualuga, the Bengals' seven-year middle linebacker, perched his third AFC North Champions hat on his head Wednesday and pronounced his team isn't done.
Lurking in Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) as they always seem to be, the Ravens are the only thing standing between their old defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, and his best record as the Bengals head coach.
"This would be the best record Marvin's had since he's been here, so what a way to bring in the new year," Maualuga said. "To give him that 12th win. I think everyone's ready for the challenge. We have the right tools and the right pieces to get that done on Sunday."
One of the many reasons the Bengals hired Lewis 13 seasons ago is because he had spent 10 of his 11 NFL seasons coaching in the old AFC Central for Steelers and Ravens teams that always dominated the Bengals before it morphed into the AFC North the year before Lewis arrived in Cincinnati.
But Sunday's game culminates a five-year stretch in which the Bengals lead the AFC North with a .652 winning percentage that is the fifth best in the NFL and leads Pittsburgh (.608) and Baltimore (.570). The AFC North and the NFC West are the only divisions with three teams that have a winning percentage of at least .570 since 2011, making Sunday's game another meat grinder despite the Ravens' 5-10 record this season.
The only teams better in the NFL than the 51-27-1 Bengals since 2011 are the 61-18 Patriots, the 57-22 Broncos, the 56-22-1 Packers and, by a half-game, the 52-27 Seahawks trying to become the first NFC team to go to three straight Super Bowls.
"It's a credit to our players and the organization. The fact that they've ground these things out – we know how difficult they are," Lewis said. "It just shows how difficult this division is, because I think within those seven years we've had two of the teams win the Super Bowl and two of them played in the Super Bowl.
"It tells you how difficult this division is year in and year out, let alone game in and game out. We know we're playing a football team that over the last eight games is 4-4. They didn't get off to the start they wanted, but they've had a number of injuries. They've played with different quarterbacks, but they keep finding a way to win football games and that's what we know going into this game. It's a division game."
The "division." That's all you need to know. In the last four years the Bengals have the fourth best record in the NFL at 42-20-1 for a six-game lead on the Steelers and a nine-game lead on Baltimore. In the last three years the Bengals are 32-14-1 with a four-game lead over Pittsburgh, nine games on Baltimore and yet guys like Maualuga are savoring this shot at 12-4.
"This is by far the best team I've been on since I've been here," Maualuga said. "The talent, the camaraderie, the relationships that each and every one of us have in this locker room is the best yet."
Along with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, nose tackle Domata Peko, cornerback Leon Hall, punter Kevin Huber, and long snapper Clark Harris, Maualuga is going to his sixth postseason in the last seven years and he thinks this team has a different mentality than the others.
"I think we have more weapons. With everyone healthy, this team can be as good as any other team in the league that's won Super Bowls or had winning seasons," Maualuga said. "This is by far the most comfortable I've been going into it. Obviously I can't think about the playoffs now, but moving forward, this is the best team that will have a chance to go far into the playoffs."
Whitworth tends to agree with him when he takes this team's pulse heading into the postseason.
"Extremely confident. We realize that every game we've played, we've had them on their heels," Whitworth said. "Even the teams that have beat us. It hasn't happened often this year, but when it has, it's come down to the last second. When you do that in this league, play every team down to the wire, that's something that gives you a lot of confidence. Even when you win those games you don't leave feeling that good about it. You kind of feel like, 'Man we squeezed out one at the end.' I think we know that we've made every team feel like that they had to play us the whole time. So I think we're very confident. I think we're confident that all we have to do is get hot and we can take care of business."
Whitworth also wants to take a crack at No. 12. The Bengals have been 12-4 twice before, in 1981 and 1988, and each time they went to the Super Bowl. Those are still the most regular-season wins in club history, plus, it could mean a play-off bye if Denver loses and the Bengals beat Baltimore for a fifth straight time. That would be a gargantuan feat since this is the first time they've beaten the Ravens four straight and they need it to garner momentum for the postseason. Plus, you know if the Ravens win, the Broncos won't.
"That's our mindset. Go into this game and be 12-4. Have the best record we've had here in quite some time," Whitworth said. "The biggest thing about this group is every year we've improved and this will be a chance this year to take it one more step and get that mark of 12-4. I think it's something that shows the kind of team we are. Be hot this time of year is what is most important. That's what we need."
They know it won't be easy even though the Ravens are battered in head coach John Harbaugh's first losing season in eight tries and they're working on their fourth quarterback, Ryan Mallett. But Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who was Harbaugh's quarterbacks coach in his first two seasons in Baltimore, knows exactly how Harbaugh is getting his guys lathered up this week.
Jackson knows how important this road game is for Harbaugh. How he played at Miami of Ohio and was an assistant for nearly a decade at the University of Cincinnati and how he'd love to re-gain the pick-axe he used to pierce the Steelers' season last week.
"We're going to go out with the mindset that the Baltimore Ravens aren't looking at our record and we're not looking at their record," said left end Carlos Dunlap. "We know that it's going to be tough, hard-nosed AFC North football. That's exactly what you're going to get."
It's the first time coaching against Harbaugh that Lewis doesn't have to defend injured quarterback Joe Flacco. It's the first time Harbaugh has gone into a Bengals game not preparing for Carson Palmer or Andy Dalton.
No matter. AJ McCarron and Ryan Mallett get absorbed by the series and the AFC North on Sunday. The Bengals try to get to 5-1 in the division, their best record since the 2009 sweep and the best division record since the 2011 Ravens swept the six North games.
"Coach Harbaugh, since he's taken over there, they play hard. They believe in him," Lewis said. "He believes in them. They go out there and put it on the line each and every week. You stand on those sidelines of these games and see how physical these guys are. All those guys have got big arms, man. They're just like clones of each other. These are big people we are about to play."
And after the game, the Bengals plan to watch the AFC West.
San Diego at Denver, 4:25 p.m. Sunday.
"I guess, yeah, I'll be watching that game," Maualuga said.
It sounds familiar to Dunlap.
"San Diego and the Broncos is a rivalry, too. They probably play them just like the Steelers were upset by the Ravens," Dunlap said. "That's a similar battle for their (division). Any given Sunday is the saying of the football league. You never know what happens. We just have to take care of business and after our game see we'll where we're at."
Where they're at is the AFC North. And as of late, it's where Lewis has pushed and shove the Bengals to the top.