Only three other AFC teams have done what the 9-4 Bengals have done since 2009: make the playoffs at least three times. Now as they close in on their fourth berth since '09, the Bengals find themselves jockeying with the same three teams for power and position in the final three games of the season: New England, Indianapolis and, of course, Baltimore, their remaining rival for their second AFC North title since 2009.
But this is not one of those stretch drives. Remember, Cincinnati's biggest December win in the previous seven seasons came last year in Pittsburgh when its offense didn't score a touchdown.
But Sunday's 42-28 demolition of a Colts team that clinched the AFC South anyway showed these are different times. Suddenly, the Bengals have an offense in December.
In 2009 and '11-12, no matter who they played in December, from the 3-11 Chiefs in '09 (17 points), to a Houston team led by a rookie QB in '11 (19), to that Steelers team they beat out for the playoffs last year (two field goals), the Bengals just couldn't score down the stretch as they lurched into the postseason.
In the last five games of each of their three previous playoff runs, the Bengals never scored 40 points and in those 15 games they scored more than 30 only once and more than 23 only twice. As defensive tackle Domata Peko demonstrated after Sunday's game with a hand like an airplane taking off, "That's where you want to be headed going into the playoffs. I think we're going in the right direction."
There are plenty of guys like Peko still around that have lived these December runs. Nine of them. Five on the offensive line, like center Kyle Cook. He agrees with Peko, his fellow Michigan State alum. This is the best team they've been on.
"As a whole – special teams, offense, defense," Cook said. "You look at '09 when we won the division and went to the playoffs, we were the Kardiac Kids where we were squeaking games out. We relied on our defense a lot and running the ball. Whereas as a whole, special teams, offense, defense, yeah, this is the best team I've been on."
And that has gone a long way in shaping the mindset of a team that is embracing the big-time games instead of feeling its way around them.
"I know Domata said yesterday that he feels in the eight years he's been here this one of the better teams, if not the best team, he's been on. It feels that way around the locker room," Cook said. "A lot of years in the past we've had to play catch-up in December and needed to go on those runs to get the Wild Card. Now we feel like that team that has it in our hands and we're taking care of business the right way. Yeah, we'd like to have a couple of games back, obviously. We'd like to have a little bit better record, but we feel like we've been in control."
Like no other run the Bengals have had in the past five seasons, they've already beat two playoff teams this year, the 10-3 Patriots and the 8-5 Colts to gain the tiebreaker edge and the 7-6 Ravens loom in the Dec. 29 season finale at Paul Brown Stadium. But after watching the Patriots and Ravens pull out miracle wins as the Bengals soaked in their own win Sunday in the locker room, the message "you can't control what you can't control" never resonated more.
It was an odd scene. Reporters asked players what they thought about gaining the second seed over New England with its loss to Cleveland and how it felt to be a win away from the North title with Baltimore losing to Minnesota. Then everything changed. The Pats and Ravens won, and the Bengals were still the third seed with a two-game lead over the Ravens with three to play and all the questions had to be posed again.
"That was crazy," cornerback Adam Jones admitted Monday. "It is what it is. I guess we're the three seed now? Just keep working. Baltimore plays New England this week?"
No. At Detroit next Monday night. Then home to New England on Dec. 22.
"So they've got two big games. We've just got to take care of our business and we'll be all right," Jones said. "If we just win out we'll be OK. That's all we've got to do: win out and let everything else take care of itself."
That's what the players said in years past. But now they actually seem to mean it. Last year helped when the Bengals finished 7-1 in eight must games to gain a Wild Card berth. They're 3-0 since losing two straight for the only time this season. Now the Bengals can qualify for the Wild Card as soon as Sunday night (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) with a win in Pittsburgh and a Miami loss at home to New England Sunday afternoon, or any kind of combo that gains ground on the 7-6 Dolphins.
The same scenario for Cincinnati's second North title in five years hangs with Baltimore. Any ground gained on the 7-6 Ravens, in Detroit next Monday night, gives the Bengals the title.
But then, if New England wins, the Bengals still trail the Pats for the No. 2 seed. Or …
Like Jones, Cook shook his head Monday over the countless scenarios that shake out of the NFL office this time of year like Christmas tree pine needles.
"I don't look at it. When somebody says 'You're in no matter what,' then great," Cook said. "But until that happens, it's too hard with people walking around saying, 'if this team wins and this team loses and you do this.' Hopefully we just keep winning and go from there.
"It's tough from the aspect that you come in the locker room and there's people walking around saying 'Oh, this team lost and this team lost,' it just elevates your day in a way. And three minutes later it's like this happened and this happened and this happened. There's nothing you can do about it. You can just win ballgames. If New England wins out and we win out, they'll be the No. 2 seed. But if we win out and something happens, we could be the No. 2 seed. You just have to take care of your own business. We already played them. We took care of that game. So there's nothing we can do about it."
That doesn't sound like the '09 team, which was surprised as anyone else that it was in a run. Or the '11 team that was led by so many rookies it was wondering why it wasn't in a BCS Bowl. Or the '12 team, which was just glad to be breathing after starting 3-5.
Another difference? This team may have had offensive stretches akin to fingernails across a blackboard. But still, it is the best offense in head coach Marvin Lewis's 11 seasons. It is on pace to score the third-most points in franchise history with 429, beaten only by the '88 team's 448 and the 85 club's 441. The Bengals are on pace for 5,900 yards, most in the Marvin era and tied for fifth on the all-time team list. And they're projected to score 50 touchdowns for the first time in 24 years.
"Looking back to '09, just being surprised to be in the race because nobody was ever around (playoff teams). But now guys know what it's about," Cook said. "Last year it came down to that Pittsburgh game; win and you're in kind of thing. It's good to have guys who have had that experience.
"Before we didn't have a whole lot of guys who had playoff experience, or grinding it out to get to the playoffs. It was always a case where you were grinding it out because you knew you were going home. We have that feel around this locker room where we feel like we're going to be here another two or three months. I don't feel like it's December. It's a great feeling."
Another thing the Bengals have on their side that they didn't in the three previous playoff trips has been a swagger at home. The Bengals are two wins away from their first perfect home season in 25 years with a 199-103 spread. The '88 Bengals homefield advantage, forever captured in lore by the legendary drawing of The Cincinnati Enquirer's brilliant Jim Borgman that featured a large, fierce cat protecting Riverfront Stadium, averaged 31 points per game at home. The '13 Bengals, with no drawings, are averaging 33. That '09 team dreaded playing in the cold and it showed. Now, they're calling for the heavy stuff, since the Super Bowl promises to be in an ice mausoleum in Jersey.
"With our great fan base, you'd like to get that playoff game at home. Bring on that cold weather, because that's what you're going to play in at the Super Bowl," Cook said. "It's not going to be the indoor, nice and fancy. It's going to be New York weather on Feb. 2."
Jones didn't arrive until 2010, but he's seen enough to know there's a difference this trip.
"This team we have now, guys love to compete," Jones said. "A couple of years ago, guys were just happy to be here. Fighting for a bye now."