If any team in the last decade knows about having momentum, or lack thereof, heading into the playoffs, it's the Bengals.
In the two years they won the AFC North, the Bengals were taken down by a lower seed and watched a sixth seed, the Steelers, run off with their Super Bowl in 2005 when they launched their run with a 31-17 Wild Card game victory over Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium.
Then in 2009 the Bengals saw the fifth-seeded Jets knock them off at PBS when Cincinnati was the fourth seed in another Wild Card game and the Jets went all the way to the AFC title game. Plus in that stretch the Bengals have watched sixth seeds like the Packers and 9-7 teams like the Giants win it all.
But with the Bengals now riding their best closing finish ever in their four postseason appearances at 6-1, they believe the shoe is on the proverbial other foot and it's another argument for playing everybody Sunday in the 1 p.m. season finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth looks at the finishes of 2009 ("We barely beat Kansas City, and they weren't very good, to clinch the division") and 2011 and sees no comparison.
"I don't think we had momentum to be honest with you. We had a great start to our season but didn't play well in the second half. We held on," Whitworth said. "Both those teams. Last year kind of the same thing. This one is in a totally different situation. We let things slip out of our hands early but second half of the year we got momentum.
"The Jets and Giants have done it. Truth is they are getting better and playing every week and the others are resting. It's better to have guys taking snaps than guys who are not. Keep going and having the hot hand can help you."
The Bengals are just too young to sit. And after the Steelers held them to 14 rushing yards on 16 attempts last Sunday, they figure they have plenty to work on.
"As young as this team is we need reps. Pittsburgh did some things and there are things we need to be better at," Whitworth said. "We've got some young guys who are playing and learning their lessons and we have to work on."
The big difference this time is the defense is red hot. Like Whitworth, safety Chris Crocker is also a starter from '09 and '11 and he sees the difference. In '09, the Bengals gave up 257 rushing yards to the Jets in the finale before they got rolled again on the ground the next week in the Wild Card game. And the Ravens come in preaching the lesson of last season. In last year's finale at PBS, Ravens running back Ray Rice gouged the Bengals for runs of 70 and 51 yards and that led to Houston rolling up 188 yards the next week at home in the Wild Card game to oust the Bengals.
Now here comes that Baltimore offense again off a big win against the Giants in which it scored 33 points. Not only did Rice go for more than 100 last week with 107 on 24 carries, but rookie Bernard Pierce added 123 on just 14 tries as the Ravens rolled for 224 on five yards per shot.
The Bengals have allowed 2.5 yards per in the last three games.
"This game for us is more about playing the way we know how to play and going into the playoffs with momentum. As a team, you want to go into the postseason kind of hot, you want to go in there feeling really well," Crocker said. "So we're approaching this thing as we still have some goals to set.
"That's the goal (to get hot). You just really play as hard as you can. We're going to work on some things we didn't do last week. There are still things we can work on each and every week that we can get better at. The goal is always to be perfect, to be in the right gap, make this tackle, all 11 guys to the ball, high energy. And that's what we're going to do this week. As a defense, we still want to finish in the top five."
The Bengals are ranked sixth and would love to move past No. 4, the ranking of that fabled 2009 defense that got them the AFC North sweep and can still get the nostalgia going.
"There was something about the 2009 defense, you just can't ... we're very good, don't get me wrong," Crocker said. "I mean, we are very good. But that 2009 season we were way more consistent from game one and we had some injuries, a lot of guys got hurt which didn't allowed us to play at a high level at some points of the season. But as a season, that 2009 defense is special.
"I think we've played as good as that 2009 defense on occasion. I mean, we've played great this year, but that defense was just something special. You can ask (Domata) Peko, you can ask (Robert) Geathers, you can ask Leon (Hall), the guys who were here on that defense. There was just something special about that defense."
Crocker understands that at some point on Sunday, the starters may be summoned to the bench and to get ready for another Wild Card venture as the coaches juggle momentum and keeping people healthy.
"I think that's every week. You kind of have to look at where you are as a team and evaluate that as the week goes on, and when the game comes you have to play until the coach says we no longer want you in the game," Crocker said. "The goal is to play to win and once the coach feels comfortable, then you take guys out. But you put your best 11 out there, whether he's banged up or whatever."
A JOKE: Although he may very well end up going to Hawaii this year as a first alternate Pro Bowler, left tackle Andrew Whitworth has no use for the process and hasn't for a long time.
"It's a joke to me," he said Wednesday before the results were announced. "I don't worry about that stuff every year. I plan to try and make the playoffs and do what I do and that's it. That's all you can do. It doesn't matter one way or the other to me. I know people probably think that's crazy, but it really doesn't."
Whitworth is completing his seventh season and has never made it despite being the left tackle on a team that has been to the playoffs three of the last four seasons and plays in a division known for its Pro Bowl pass rushers. But he does think the Pro Bowl trio of Cleveland's Joe Thomas, Denver's Ryan Clady and Houston's Duane Brown does deserve to go and thinks the voters got this one right.
The Web site ProFootballFocus.com rates all three ahead of Whitworth in its overall tackles rankings, but puts Whitworth No. 1 in pass blocking in the NFL. The site puts Thomas, Clady and Brown 2-3-6 in its pass rankings. Bengals right tackle Andre Smith is a top 10 draft pick that got no love this season except from PFF, which ranked him fifth overall, four slots ahead of Whitworth.
But Whitworth made sure he saluted the club's two Pro Bowl starters, wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
"It's a popularity contest. You see it every year. There are guys that don't even play half a season, get put on IR and they still make the Pro Bowl," Whitworth said. "I think for young guys it's really important. It's their first chance to get a name, for people to respect what they do. For A.J., Geno. At some point, for most guys, they don't even think about it because the truth is once a young guy gets in there, he stays in there whether they play well or not."
A DANE XMAS: Whatever happens, Dane Sanzenbacher is going to remember Christmas, 2012. The Bears cut him Christmas Eve, the Bengals claimed him Christmas, and he had to leave his family Christmas night to beat the storm out of Chicago. He pulled into Cincinnati at 2 a.m., and like Santa, the second-year wideout is just glad to be here.
"You never know. My agent and I thought there was a pretty good chance of getting picked up somewhere," Sanzenbacher said after Wednesday's practice. "But this late in the season a lot of teams have one game left on their schedule, so we really didn't know. I was in the dark for most of my Christmas morning. I was obviously relieved getting a call from anywhere, but getting to come back to Ohio and play in this beautiful weather is great."
The weather outside was frightful, but Sanzenbacher is used to it as a Toledo native who had such a fine career at Ohio State. It's all happening on the fly after he spent his first two years in the league in Chicago. The Bengals coached him at the 2011 Senior Bowl, but that was under a different coordinator and receivers coach.
"Not a whole lot, to be honest," Sanzenbacher said when asked what he knows about his situation. "Obviously it's going to start with learning everything, knowing the offense before you can do anything. To be honest, I'm still getting familiar with the guys and the coaches and the atmosphere. I'm six hours into it, so we'll see how it goes from here. But it seems like a good opportunity."
All he knows is he's wearing No. 11 and that it feels a little bit like Columbus.
"We've got (Daniel Herron) here. We've got some Toledo guys here from back home; it's cool," he said. "And it's a young team, too, which is cool. I didn't think I would really notice it as much, but it's cool to have so many guys – and this is only a half-day's experience – but with so many guys around the same age, it's more of that college atmosphere where everybody is kind of at the same point in life."