Of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's three AFC North titles, this one is low key. The team hasn't even been together since the Patriots knocked off the Ravens on Sunday evening to make it possible; occurring about two hours after the last Bengals left the stadium. Lewis gave the team a Victory Monday off, so the Bengals won't get their AFC North champion hats and shirts until Tuesday when they begin practicing for the Ravens.
And it's probably just as well. Lewis detests those hats because he believes they mean nothing when a Super Bowl championship hat is still available. Plus, this is a lot different locker room.
In 2005 the Bengals had never been to the playoffs and in 2009 no one expected them to go. These Bengals going to their third straight postseason would have preferred that they won the title this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.) against the Ravens after Baltimore beat the Pats. That would have given Cincinnati a bye and a second seed. Nickel back Chris Crocker and right end Michael Johnson have been around for all four of the playoff appearances in the last five seasons.
"I feel good, but I'll feel a lot better if New England loses," Crocker said of the Pats-Buffalo game in Foxboro this Sunday. "I really would. I really would feel much better if they lose and we take care of business this Sunday. I was hoping they lost this weekend. But it's never done. It's just like 'hey, you can't turn your mind off right now.' We've got to get ready for Baltimore. They're still fighting to get in. This is not going to be a walkthrough, it's not going to be an easy game, it never is when you're playing a divisional opponent. They're still fighting to get in, and we're fighting to get a better seed."
Indeed, if the Bengals lose and the Colts beat Jacksonville, the Bengals host the 11-4 Chiefs instead of a gaggle of teams at 8-7 and one (the Steelers) at 7-8. Johnson checked in only periodically on Patriots-Ravens and wasn't happy.
"I wanted New England to lose to Baltimore and then Baltimore to come in here and lose to us. That's what I wanted to happen. But however it shakes out, it shakes out. It is what it is. We're going to be ready for whatever," Johnson said.
It may be a low-key division title, but it doesn't mean it's taken for granted. The last time the Bengals won the AFC North, they swept the division in '09. This time they have to beat Baltimore to finish 3-3 in the division. And with the way the Bengals jumped out on Baltimore and Pittsburgh early in the season, Crocker spoke about how every loss was more painful than previous seasons.
"This year we won 10 games and we lost five, but it seems like because our expectations were so high this year, to lose five games, it felt like we lost 10," Crocker said. "We're like, 'God, if we lose one game it's like the end of the world.' Other seasons hadn't been like that. You'd always say, 'All right, we've got another game. Let's win the next game.' But this year there was that heightened stress of just knowing what we could do as a team. I think that really helped us. That feeling when we lost those games, that really helped us come together and push through the rest of the season."
Crocker grew up in this division as a third-round pick of the Browns in 2003. On Sunday he played in his 150th NFL game and a total of 114 have been with the Bengals (70) and Browns (44). So he knows all about it.
"In my career, this is only my second time winning a division. For me, that says a lot; it's that hard to do," Crocker said. "I've been in the AFC North nine out of my 11 years, and I've played these teams a bunch and now we're at the top, we're the team that people are trying to catch right now. And that's a good feeling. We've been chasing Baltimore and Pittsburgh for so long. They've been so good and it just feels really good to be at the top and now it's kind of like we're looking down at everybody else."
And there's no doubt Crocker and Johnson believe this North championship team is better than that one in '09. That year the Bengals were fourth in defense, but an offense that relied mainly on the run finished 24th. This year the Bengals go into the finale ranked fifth in defense and 10th in offense.
"This is a real mentally tough group. But they were calling us the 'Cardiac Cats' back then. We won a lot of last-second games. That took a lot of mental toughness as well," Johnson said. "I'm not going to say one group was mentally tougher than the other. I really don't know. I guess you would have to look at the numbers to see what the differences are. I think we definitely have across the board more positions with depth."
Crocker says you can't begin to compare the offenses.
"We couldn't do much other than run the ball," Crocker said of '09. "This team is much more complete. Just look at our versatility. You have different styles. Our offense can be any type of style. The wide receivers are great. You have the power game with (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) and you have the scat back with Gio (Bernard). We have so many (more) elements of offense than we had back in 2009."
INJURY LOOK: When the Bengals get back to work Tuesday they'll be checking on the concussion protocols of linebacker Vontaze Burfict and tight end Alex Smith after they were dinged against the Vikings last Sunday. If right tackle Andre Smith (ankle) doesn't play Sunday, he'll be ready for the playoffs and that may be the case with cornerback Terence Newman (knee).
UN-RETIRING THOUGHTS: With his toddler daughter accompanying him to work Monday, Crocker knows he's not the future of the Bengals. After all, this is his second straight improbable journey of a season. Off the couch in September to the playoffs.
"I'm not the future. You're crazy if (I) thought that," Crocker said. "I think my role has just been as a transition for this team. Just keeping the expectations going from where we started in '08."
But don't ask him about retiring. Certainly not after the last two seasons he dabbled in different ventures, such as broadcasting and officiating.
"It brings up the question every year. Are you going to retire? Are you done? I think the mystery is a little bit of fun. I won't say just yet," Crocker said. "I really am enjoying it. And this postseason is about winning. When I came back, that was the whole goal. I thought we had a really good shot at making it to the postseason, but it was more than that. It's about winning and going far and trying to win it all. Because just to get here, that was everybody else's expectation. But our expectations were to go far. I'm really looking forward to it."
And he really wants to make it to this playoff game. In '11 Crocker limped in and played on a bad knee and last year he hurt his quad in the finale and didn't play at all in the wild card game.
"I didn't know if that was going to be my last game or not. I anticipated it would be, but I'm back here now and obviously I'm healthy," Crocker said. "Now I get to finish the way I want to finish."
GOOD ADVICE: As the Bengals went down the stretch, Johnson recalled the words of the late Thomas Howard, the former Bengals linebacker killed in a car accident last month. They came after the Bengals got drubbed in the 2012 opener in Baltimore, which turned out to be the last game Howard played for Cincinnati. Since Johnson arrived in 2009 via the third round, he has been surrounded by winning.
"You just expect it. You expect to come out and win. I know it's the NFL," Johnson said. "I quote Thomas Howard on this, it was last year after we lost to the Ravens, he was like 'Nobody worry. Nobody panic. That's just one that was on the road. If we go undefeated at home and split on the road, that's 12-4. So we're still good.' I've always thought about it like that. This year we're 3-5 on the road and we've got an opportunity to be undefeated at home. That would put us at 11-5. So if you look at it like that, I feel like you should always win your home games. And like he said, if you can split on the road you've got a good opportunity to be where you want to be."