PALM BEACH, Fla. _ When the NFL head coaches had their family photo snapped Monday in front of the majestic fountains of The Breakers, Zac Taylor stood in front of Andy Reid and next to good buddy Matt LaFleur and new Texans boss Lovie Smith.
That's about where Taylor and his rising Bengals stand at the league's annual owners meetings. They twice finished ahead of Reid's two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs last season, the last in the thrilling overtime of the AFC championship game. He's right there with his old friend LaFleur, also coach of a generational franchise quarterback in Green Bay. And Smith and Taylor are a rare snapshot, two of only 13 current head coaches that have won a conference championship.
But there's no room to puff cigars in the AFC North, a rough-and-tumble smoke house where they compete even in March. Ask Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin at Monday's AFC coaches media availability about his division, the Bengals and the changes he's seen in the North since 2007.
"I haven't thought about the division," Tomlin said with a straight game face. "I've only thought about our team and building the early stages of schematic development and acquisition of talent for us. I'Il get to the others, but I'm not there yet."
These guys are already switching from an easy lobby conversation to using regular season coach speak once the microphones deploy. But then, Tomlin and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh have seen this all before.
The great rivals have both won Super Bowls and Tomlin heads into his 16th season, tying former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis for the longest run in the North. Harbaugh is a year behind at 15 and just as game week guarded.
"The Bengals are the champs. The defending champs," said Harbaugh pleasantly after his session and politely said he was due at a meeting when asked to characterize the state of the Bengals-Ravens rivalry that has been even more heated of late.
Even in early spring they're not looking to give an edge. And Taylor gets it. He knows a sweep of the Steelers and Ravens by a combined 147-58 won last year's division and not this one.
"I usually talk to John Harbaugh about this in pregame and you wouldn't really want it any other way," said Taylor of the strength of the AFC North during his avail with the national media. "We play in an incredibly difficult division … you come out of that division battle tested if you're able to make it to the playoffs and playing in the AFC North you feel like you've played the best of the best six times."
While the chattering pundits have looked at the additions and christened the AFC just so hard, the North coaches are wondering what else is new.
"We've learned that the hard way, we've learned that playing against some great teams," Taylor said. "That's life in the NFL, it's never easy, it's always fun and entertaining. Our guys really have risen to the challenge. I expect them to do the same next year."
Which is why no one is saying much. Even now.
OT: The biggest thing that could come out of the meetings is if the owners approve a new overtime rule that would make sure each team gets the ball once no matter who wins the coin toss and even if the first team that gets possession scores a touchdown. If anyone should have an opinion on OT, it is Taylor.
With six in three years, he's coached in as many overtime games as past Bengals head coaches Tiger Johnson (1), Homer Rice (2) and Forrest Gregg (3) did in seven years. He also has nearly as many OT games as Sam Wyche. He had seven in 132 games while Taylor's six have come in just 53.
The Athletic's Jay Morrison, the league's resident "Stats Masterson," notes that 11.3 percent of Taylor's games have gone overtime. Marvin Lewis, the Bengals all-time coaching leader, saw just five percent of his 263 games go extra.
This season, the Bengals lost an OT game when they won the toss, kicked a field goal and then the 49ers scored a touchdown. They famously lost the toss to start the AFC title game, but the Jessie Bates III-Vonn Bell interception gave Joe Burrow and Evan McPherson the ball and it turned into a Super Bowl trip.
But if he has an opinion, Taylor isn't saying.
"We've been on both sides of it," Taylor said. "This week arguments will be made on both sides. We went out there and just played ball and it's worked out both ways for us. We'll see what the results are this week."
Also in the mix is player safety.
"That's the discussion. If you're in a regular season game and a touchdown does end it (it) eliminates the amount of plays that can happen," Taylor said. "If a team elected to kick the extra point on the second touchdown, there you are in a tie again.
"I think the argument to be made would a lot teams would go for two because there would be so little time left, so you try and get the win and eliminate that. But it does add a little more plays. And if you can't get that stop while you're on defense and the team goes out and scores a touchdown, I think there's an argument to be made is did you do to deserve to win the game. Those are the discussions we're having this week."
There's also a proposal out there that if a team scores a touchdown and gets the two-point conversion, it wins no matter what. All of it has been discussed by the Bengals hierarchy before president Mike Brown makes the vote.
"It's something we talk through as an organization. All these rules we talk in depth as an organization in productive conversations," Taylor said. "I learn a lot just about the history of the game from Mike and everyone who has been involved in that. Those are always fun conversations and it gives you a better understanding how this thing has evolved over decades and how we ended up where we are today."
EVEN MORE JA'MARR: What more can NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja'Marr Chase do? Whatever it is, Taylor says Chase has "only started to scratch the potential, which is scary."
After setting the NFL rookie record with 1,455 yards, Chase needs 1,562 to set the NFL record set this season by old LSU buddy Justin Jefferson for most yards in a player's first two NFL seasons, according to Sport Radar. A.J. Green is seventh on the list with 2,409, which means Chase needs 955 to set the Bengals record.
"He can continue to build on that now that he's more comfortable living in Cincinnati for a year," Taylor said. "Knowing how to get to work. Knowing what the meeting structure is. Knowing what the quality of the corners that's he going to play against. You get a chance to sit on that information for six months, come back and attack year two and I'm excited to see what he can do.
APPLE OF BENGALS EYE: Cornerback Eli Apple has repeatedly insisted one of the big reasons the former first-rounder turned around his career in Cincinnati last year is the faith the coaches showed him. "A no-brainer," he said of his decision earlier this month to return on a one-year deal.
On Monday, Taylor continued to show that faith by saying there's no question Apple is one of his three starters to go with Mike Hilton in the slot and Chidobe Awuzie on the other side. He remembers the 15 solid games off the bench in place of the injured Trae Waynes and the two huge plays in the playoffs. His tipped pass for middle linebacker Logan Wilson's pick set up the last-second win in Tennessee and his tackle of Tyreek Hill on the Bengals 1 the next week in Kansas City turned the AFC championship.
"If you don't have a quality corner, people are going to find him and pick on him. Eli Apple is a quality starting corner in this league," Taylor said. "I've got a lot of praise for Eli. I have a lot of respect for the things he did for us this year. He was a priority to try and bring back because I think our team appreciates him.
"I mean, Eli was there for a lot of big moments. I'm really proud of the way he played this year and really happy we were able to get him back in the mix. He's a big part of what we accomplished."