Posted: 11:25 p.m.
Not only has the way the Bengals stalk their victories changed, but also the way they celebrate them.
The way they do both nowadays offers a glimpse of why they are 5-2, tied for first in the AFC North with the Steelers, and smack dab in the middle of the NFL playoff picture heading into their bye week in the wake of the 45-10 clinic of the Bears.
The high-octane offense that had been the subject of an intense manhunt since the Bengals lost to the Browns, 51-45, two years ago, surfaced Sunday with their most points and yards since that day and their biggest rushing day in five years with 215 yards.
"I would say this one was more physical," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said Monday as he compared Sunday with the offensive onslaughts of 2006 and 2007. "I wouldn't say we were as physical then as this team is. We were a little bit more finesse and speed with the great wideouts and beat you to the edge. ... We weren't able to run the ball. All we could do was throw it over people's heads. Once you get the lead you've got to be able to run it and we weren't able to.
"In this game, the perfect test was come out in the second half and we run it down their throats. That's what wins games."
Then, once the game was won, Whitworth and the rest of the captains treated the entire team and their families to a postgame dinner at Nada in downtown Cincinnati in what has become a tradition for the rest of the year. Along with some selected veterans, such as right guard Bobbie Williams and kicker Shayne Graham.
As far as Whitworth knows, that hasn't ever happened in an organized fashion for the players in this particular locker room. He shrugged and said, "That's leadership."
Leadership is also head coach Marvin Lewis conferring with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and his staff before this season and outlining how he wanted to emphasize the running game for a variety of reasons.
For one, protecting their franchise quarterback with an inexperienced offensive line. For another unleashing a play-action game that would give Palmer some room and his receivers some separation.
And, most importantly, it's the way Lewis likes to play it. How could a defensive guy from Pittsburgh go for any other style?
Since the Bengals won the AFC North in 2005, the big-play pass offense won nothing while the yards per rush froze at 3.7 in '06 and '07 and dipped to 3.6 in '08, a season quarterback Carson Palmer missed all but four games.
"We looked at things after the season, and during the season at the bye week, and I felt like a lot of things needed to improve," Lewis said. "A lot of credit goes to the offensive staff going into the lab and building upon many of the things I asked them to do. And you continue as you go through the season and build things. We just have to keep going forward. Our guys are doing a nice job of understanding the concepts, and we're really not changing a lot. We're just adjusting."
Whitworth has lived through some shootouts. But he hadn't been with the team when it scored 40 points and won until Sunday.
He was at left tackle when the Bengals lost to the Chargers, 49-41, in 2006 despite a 28-7 halftime lead. And he was the left tackle when they lost to Cleveland, 51-45, in 2007 despite six Palmer touchdown passes.
This one definitely had a different feel. All six touchdown drives took at least seven plays. The longest TD pass was 13 yards and Palmer's longest throw was 29 yards. Using an extreme dose of play-action and rollout action, Palmer carved up the middle of the field on 83 percent passing with throws averaging 9.7 yards.
Against the Chargers in '06, Palmer chucked TD passes of 51 and 74 yards to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and four receivers had long balls of at least 22 yards as he dropped deep in the pocket and gunned it for 10.5 yards a pop.
The Bengals had solid rushing days, with 128 yards against San Diego and 137 against Cleveland. But nothing like Sunday's 215. The key? They had 106 of them in the second half of no comebacks. The running game brings consistency. In the 37 games since the Cleveland loss on Sept. 16, 2007, the Bengals have scored 24 or more points in six games. But now twice in the last six games.
No question the defense took the brunt of the blame for those two losses, but the offense couldn't keep them off the field. Against San Diego they whiffed on all five third-down tries in the second half and probably needed just one first down to win a game that would have got them into the playoffs.
Bratkowski and Whitworth wasted no time reminding everybody they'd been there before.
"If you don't remember the past," Bratkowski told them, "you are doomed to repeat it."
Actually, Whitworth, Palmer, Williams, Ochocinco and fullback Jeremi Johnson were the only ones left, but it was enough.
"We just mentioned it and said we'd been here before," Whitworth said. "We said we've got to go out there and run the ball down their throats. Whether you've got a four-touchdown lead or a one-touchdown lead, that's how you're going to be successful.
"It's not necessarily that in '06 and '07 we had a different mindset as much as we didn't run the football well or execute well. Now we have a different mindset that we can do these things. That we can line up in a bunch of ways and run it."
Bratkowski said it's been fun to unearth much of the playbook he's put together since arriving in 2001 with the thrust of the effort aimed at the running game.
"All the coaches had things that they were looking at and every coach studied some aspect," Bratkowski said. "And we got together and started putting it together and it's been fun."
The goal is as clear as the rushing stats that now read 4.3 yards per carry. Marry a running game with an offensive line that was no longer blessed with the seasoning and athleticism of what had come before.
"The basic concept was to find what was the most effective style of run game for us," Bratkowski said. "We took into account that we have some new guys, so we narrowed some things down and didn't do as many. We're running more zone schemes inside and outside and have a mix of runs with it. We thought it would be the best way for this offensive line to jell and come together."
Bratkowski has skillfully transferred the new philosophy to the field. The offensive line has been the surprise of the first half of the season, yielding the NFL's leading rusher and allowing the league's 10th-best sacks per pass ratio.
Bratkowski turned the lab into a research center when one of the most crucial elements of any running game got taken away from him just before the season when tight ends Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht suffered season-ending injuries in training camp.
Which is as big reason why the Bengals are using a lot of unbalanced line alignments with Whitworth and right tackles Dennis Roland and Anthony Collins swapping sides or lining up next to each other. On Sunday, Roland continued to play more than Collins. But after reporting as an extra tight end, Roland has to come off the field for a play before going back to tackle.
"We're doing it to take some of the workload off our tight ends," Bratkowski said. "We have the ability, we have enough good players that we can throw an extra tackle in and go unbalanced along with the extra tackle. It's helped us, and we've been able to run and throw out of it."
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst who played all five line positions in his 10-year NFL career, likes how the line has approached the physical aspect and how they have embraced the unbalanced line.
"They don't look at people and say 'We're better,' but they look at people and say 'We can be more physical than them.' They did that yesterday," Lapham said. "They've got good depth and versatility on the line with smart guys that take the game seriously. Guys like Collins and Roland have played both sides. When they flip guys that tells me they're going to make you think. They're going to make you look for them. And when you see Whit on the right side, that doesn't necessarily mean he's next to the other tackle. They may have just changed sides, so that's another thing the defense has to think about."
Take the fifth play of the game, when Whitworth lined up on the right side and his 330 pounds gobbled up the 260 of Bears right end Adewale Ogunleye. Running back Cedric Benson patiently waited to see what Whitworth would do with Ogunleye until he jetted past them on the outside down the sideline for his first big gain, a 23-yarder that set the tempo in the running game.
The one predictable thing about the talk shows the last couple of years is that Bratkowski would get ripped daily for being predictable. But on Sunday he had the Bears back on their heels with a hard drive full of different formations, unbalanced lines, inverted Wishbone backfields, and even a Wildcat formation.
The best example of how Bratkowski confounded the Bears came late in the first half when the Bengals come out in an unbalanced line. Palmer, no longer a sitting duck this season and always dropping back in the same spot, rolled and hit The Ocho coming across the field with him for a 14-yard gain.
Bratkowski has been doing all of these things this season in some form or another, but he admitted "We had a little bit more of everything (Sunday). It was the most efficient way to get into the things we wanted to do."
Although they can throw out of the unbalanced stuff, Whitworth likes the message it sends.
"What does it tell you when you see two big guys over on the same side?" Whitworth asked. "It tells you we're going to run it and we don't care if you know we're going to run it."
Another frequent criticism the offense had heard despite the fireworks of '06 and '07 has been that it lacked an identity with the game on the line. Jack of all trades, master of none when it counted. No more, Whitworth says after Sunday. Now that even the foes know they're running it.
"That's the new identity, that's the image. Heart. Attitude," he said. "We left no doubt (Sunday), in my opinion, that what is on film is that we've got guys that fly around and knock people off the football."