The pundits that said the Bengals were going to be so bad that that they would get Andrew Luck now have the good luck of starting the second half of the season covering Sunday's first-place showdown in the AFC North (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium between the AFC-leading Bengals and the Steelers, who trail Cincinnati by a half-game.
Riding their longest winning streak in more than 20 years, the karma is flowing like defensive tackle Domata Peko's hair. Bengals president Mike Brown has been selected as the NFL's Executive of the Year by one pundit at the season's halfway point. Monday night's weekly show on the Bengals Radio Network crackled with a full house. With half a season left the Bengals have a better record than the Patriots, Jets, Chargers and Texans, and the biggest debate in Bengaldom is if the fans can talk sackmaster Carlos Dunlap into staging an orangeout at PBS instead of a blackout.
"It's a street fight," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of the matchup with the Steelers. "It's a football game, but it's like you're meeting somebody in the school parking lot. That's what it is. It's football, but it's a fight at the same time."
This is a big reason why the Bengals hired Marvin Lewis. For division scraps like this one. While Lewis was the linebackers coach for the Steelers in the early '90s, Pittsburgh was 7-1 against Cincinnati. When he was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens, he posted three straight shutouts on the Bengals in Baltimore.
This has been his major accomplishment as the longest tenured coach in Bengals history. Lewis's record is 27-22 in the AFC North and as he gets ready for his 50th regular-season game in the division it is his first showdown with his rebuilt program. In the previous 49 division games before Lewis got the job, the Bengals were 14-35, and doesn't it always seem to be the Steelers?
Lewis's hometown team knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in 2005, eliminated them from the 2006 playoffs on the season's last play, and are 7-1 against his club at PBS.
"We hate them and they hate us; even the fans," Peko said. "Everywhere I go even the chefs in the restaurants are like 'just beat Pittsburgh.' It's just that rivalry. Nothing like going up against your rival and getting at it."
Lewis may be 5-11 against the Steelers (10-6 vs. the Ravens and 12-5 vs. the Browns), but this is a brave new world. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton already has a division win on the road and for once, Lewis has a team that is sticking to the motto of his charitable foundation, "One Play At A Time." The team that once staged a WWF steel cage match during the Chad Ochocinco halftime meltdown in the Wild Card loss to these Steelers in '05 is healthy and happy.
"Drama free. That is the great part about it. If there is drama we handle it ourselves," Whitworth said.
Due back to practice Wednesday is middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has missed the last three games with an ankle injury. Lewis also expects back tight end Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) after he missed the last two games and cornerback Adam Jones (hamstring) after he missed last week. Running back Brian Leonard (knee) says he's fine after Monday's exam and Lewis said Dunlap's hamstring injury isn't as bad as first feared.
Dunlap sounds questionable and Maualuga says he's going to take it slowly starting with individual work on Wednesday, but there is no drama here considering the Bengals have won with whoever they put in there.
"That's the thing about this team," Whitworth said in the moments after the 24-17 win in Tennessee. "That's our motto for this year's Bengals team: Next man up no matter the situation."
The Bengals not only lead the AFC in tiebreakers, but also mottos. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, Ocho without the drama, said after his crunch-time dramatics Sunday, "We don't flinch. That's our motto: 'Don't Flinch.' "
"There's no looking ahead. Just have to take one step at a time and that's what our team has been doing," Peko said.
There is also Lewis's training camp jersey of "Find A Way," which is exactly what Brown did during the most tumultuous offseason in his franchise's history. But while everybody was busy ranking him the lowest of the low, he put his head down and put together a team that for the time being is up on Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan.
Michael Lombardi, one of Brown's division rivals from the old AFC Central when he ran Cleveland's personnel department and now an NFL Network analyst, praised Brown on air Monday night.
"My executive of the year would be Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals. The Cincinnati Bengals [are] 6-2 with a ton of young talent drafted by Mike Brown on defense," Lombardi said. "Then making the move to get Andy Dalton in the second round, A.J. Green in the first round and then ultimately sealing it off with the trade of Carson Palmer for a first-round pick – and potentially another first-round pick, but at least a [second-round pick]. Mike Brown clearly is the winner at the midway point."
Lewis is making it all work on the field, where there are no players left from the team that lost his first division game against the Steelers, naturally, in 2003. Indeed, there are only four players still left from the 2005 team that won what was basically the AFC North title game over the Steelers at Heinz Field.
And considering it was only two years ago, the Bengals have just nine of 22 starters back from the club that swept the division, the last time they were 6-2.
"We were 6-2 in '09?" asked an amazed Peko. "Seems like so long ago."
Not only were the Bengals 6-2, but they went into Pittsburgh that week and held the Steelers without a touchdown in the Battle of 18-12. But any resemblance to that team and this one is strictly coincidence.
In '09 the team was stunned by the sudden deaths of Vikki Zimmer, wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and wide receiver Chris Henry, while it also grappled with a stagnant passing game and the moody celebrity of The Ocho. After the Bengals won that one in Pittsburgh, they lost five of their last eight.
"Guys just kind of wore out a little bit, I think because there were so many issues going on with us we were worn out," Whitworth said. "This is a different feel. I feel like we are in Week 2. Just feel good, we feel good, we feel fresh, we feel excited. Like I said, forget Sundays. I have never had as much fun Wednesday, Thursday, Friday as I have in my whole life just playing football. Coming up here working. All of us, we get along that good. We have a blast every single time we walk into the locker room."
Whitworth says it is that locker room that has allowed Lewis to change his ways and not become as involved in side issues. It's why the Bengals didn't name captains this year.
"In some ways, I think we have lot of leaders in this room. I don't think we have individuals. That's why we didn't name captains because I think we have a lot of guys that deserve to be captains," Whitworth said. "I think that's the mark of a good football team. When we lead the team and we police the team and Marvin gets to kind of direct practice that makes things a whole lot easier on a head coach. That's the kind of team we have and like I said I think we have started over.
"I think the young leadership of this team has taken the reigns, and (Lewis) doesn't have to do as much policing. That is the difference. He doesn't have to be the one that nitpicks on us on everything; we nitpick ourselves."
That's why Peko thought it was no problem that Lewis gave the players Monday off with the stipulation that they do their lifting either Monday or Tuesday. But it was a busy locker room. Mostly everybody checked in at one point and a lot of them, like Peko, went upstairs to watch some tape.
"He knows we won five straight and deserve time to get the body right," Peko said. "We know what they do and what this week and game means to everyone. Even though we have Victory Monday we've got guys working. He knows we're ready."
Peko and Whitworth, the unofficial captains, have had a lot to do with the new locker room as the leaders of the voluntary workouts during the lockout.
"It's ironic while guys were on the couch we were working and it's paid off," Peko said. "You reap what you sow and I think we are reaping the harvest right now of the hard work we did. We got a step ahead of teams. We had like 30-something plays put in those two weeks. We just have to keep winning and the sky is the limit."
Whitworth began to feel what he feels now. It's why the Bengals Likeability Factor is so high in the town right now compared to the '09 North champs. The kids and veterans are feeding off each other's strengths instead of eating each other's egos alive.
"From all the guys that were here that is what I expected out of them. I know the kind of character they all have. And they knew what it was," Whitworth said. "And there were things that got in our way, but I think in general the character of this team is very, very high. I think we have a lot of guys that have jumped in the bus and decided to do things the right way. I think as we go forward some of these young guys are going to continue to get better and better because of it. I think we believed in them from the beginning. It's just a good feeling to see them do well because that is what you want. You want to see these young guys do well. You want to see them have success and realize why they are having success."
Yes Virginia, the Bengals are tied for the best record in the AFC at 6-2 at the halfway point and mouthing all of Lewis's talking points instead of making a point to just mouth. On Sunday, Lewis said to a reporter about the Steelers, "They're next on the schedule," and Monday, Peko and Whitworth were talking about "the next team in front of us."
"It's a good feeling; it's been a long road here," Whitworth said. "I was talking about that with Frostee (Rucker) and Domata last night. It's been tough, but you know, we have been able to change things; we have been able to redirect things. It's been good but we've got a lot of work left."
Dunlap supplied the only drama of the week so far when he suggested a blackout and that everyone wear black. Problem is, the Steelers wear black and so now Twitter is all Atwitter about wearing orange instead of black.
The players are just happy the place is going to be awash in colors.
"So excited it's sold out; finally fans get to see what this team is about," Peko said while Whitworth made a request.
"The city of Cincinnati deserved that we showed to them what we had and what kind of football team we wanted to be," he said. "Hopefully they'll be out loud and proud and we'll make this place a tough place to play."