The 5-4 Bengals make their first trip to Las Vegas this weekend to play the 5-4 Raiders Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in a game that unleashes all the fineries of postseason positioning. The most experienced playoff veteran at Paul Brown Stadium thinks they've got what it takes to survive the grueling run that now stretches to the second Sunday in January.
"This team has all the makings. It's got all the makings," said defensive tackle Mike Daniels after Friday's practice. "I can't stress enough that we're going to ride on the backs of the big guys. And that's a challenge I know our guys are willing to take."
You can't even call it a playoff picture. The Bengals are smack in the middle of the AFC's chaotic playoff maze, within a game of nine teams with five and six victories.
Other than Buffalo, they're the only team in that mix with as many as five home games left. But the 6-3 Bills are left to deal with the surging 7-4 Patriots in the AFC East and have a schedule with six teams of at least .500 or better with a combined winning percentage of .513.
The Bengals sit competitively in the AFC North. They are the only team in the division with five home games left. They play seven teams that are at least .500, but so do the Steelers and Ravens. And the Browns play six .500 teams or better. The Bengals' remaining foes have a winning percentage of .547, which is the same as the Browns but not as daunting as the Steelers (.600) and the Ravens (.573).
Daniels, 32, and his 10 postseason games aren't on the active roster as he continues to grind every day on the practice squad. But his been-there before optimism is still a big part of the chemistry and he's not the only one.
Although second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and his band of playmakers have never been to the playoffs, a dozen of their teammates on the active 53-man roster have. Throw in the combined 11 postseason games punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris have played for the Bengals and this isn't the 2005 and or even 2011 edition that made the playoffs with far less postseason experience.
Daniels, who made it five straight years with the Aaron Rodgers Packers, is optimistic about this team because many of the veterans play on each line and he's a firm believer that postseason runs are determined by "the big boys."
"This division is a physical division and always has been," said Daniels, pointing to the Bengals wins in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. "You saw that. That was the big boys and when we lost to Cleveland, their big boys played better than ours. What it comes down to in the division is how the big boys are going to play and I think our guys are working their tails off.
"I'm giving the starting offensive line all they can handle and they're clearly getting better. Same on the other side of the ball. They're clearly getting better. It's really going to show what we're made of."
On Monday and Friday, Daniels takes his-Twitter famous mega workouts into the Bengals weight room. He ends those hour-long sessions huffing and puffing with active roster sweat. He'll also put in a massive effort on Wednesdays after a practice he gives the offense an extensive, game-like look on the scout team.
"In case my number's called," Daniels said. "I'm going to be ready."
He says all phases of the team have to be ready for the call in one of these playoff pushes in case another area of the team struggles. He looks at the guys on defense, guys like former Browns tackle Larry Ogunjobi, former Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton and the former Saints tandem of defensive end Trey Hendrickson and strong safety Vonn Bell.
That's 13 playoff games right there. And they all got there in a different way.
"When you've been there on a different team, there's a lot of different circumstances," Daniels said. "I've been there quite a bit, but half our playoff runs was on the back of our quarterback. It's a different situation everywhere. You can say the same thing about the Saints. The Steelers got there on their defense. The Browns were there for the first time in a long time. It looks different for every team, but at the end of the day what I see in our team, it starts and ends with the big boys."
And we all know what Daniels thinks of the back of this quarterback.
"He's going to be one of the greats of all-time," Daniels said of Burrow. "But you can't rely on just one guy."
HILTON-RENFROW: Hilton, always fiery and engaged, is fired up about his matchup with Raiders slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. He's got his hands full, but he relishes it. Renfrow is rated higher than any Bengals wide receiver in the Pro Football Focus ratings (18) and he's seventh in the NFL with 17 third-down catches.
"A lot of guys call me the spark plug on defense for some reason and I embrace that role," Hilton said this week. "He's one of the better slot receivers in the game. He doesn't get the respect I think he deserves personally, but I have a lot of respect for what he can do inside … He's just real sudden as far as selling one route and going another way. His quickness is elite, he has great hands, he's just an all-around slot receiver and as you can see (quarterback Derek) Carr loves to get him involved, especially on third down."
Hilton has seen this guy before. But only on TV.
"Just growing up he has that Wes Welker feel," Hilton said of a guy that hasn't played in six years. "A smaller guy, but just real savvy in his routes and can really get open and really freeze defenders. Like I said, I'm excited for the challenge man. I feel like it's a best on best type of challenge for me."
Good call by Hilton. Welker went 5-9, 185 pounds and Renfrow is listed at 5-10, 185.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: When he rushes for five yards Sunday, running back Joe Mixon becomes the fastest Bengal to reach 4,000 rush yards and 1,000 receiving yards. He'll do it in his 60th game while the other Bengals to do it did it in their 71st (Corey Dillon), 76th (James Brooks) and 77th games (Pete Johnson) …
Mixon becomes the sixth Bengals back to hit 4,000 and the first in ten years since Cedric Benson in 2011 …
Wide receiver Auden Tate (thigh) went full for the second straight day and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin (knee) went full for the first time this week and both were deemed questionable for Sunday …
After going full Friday following two limited days, center Trey Hopkins (knee) wasn't listed with a status, making him probable …
It looks like the Bengals are going to be down a third tight end with no sign of Mitchell Wilcox (COVID list). Head coach Zac Taylor indicated he'll be using his extra callups on that spot. The Bengals have used three tight ends on about 24 plays ...