Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is banking on more playoff experience meaning his team doesn't have to be a prisoner of experience. So he figures he doesn't have to say a word about last year's same-Bat-Time-Same-Bat-Channel matchup with the Texans on Saturday (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Houston.
A total of two-thirds of the 53-player roster (36) enters the Houston game with NFL playoff experience. That's eight more than last year, so Lewis doesn't think he has to go rah-rah over last year's 31-10 loss at Reliant Stadium.
"I don't have to use any of it," Lewis said Monday. "The guys remember and that's why they've fought the way they've fought this year. Any professional that does anything remembers their last experience and that's been there throughout the start of our season this year. You're not going to keep squeezing more blood out of that turnip."
Lewis took a break from his preparation Monday to speak briefly via conference call with reporters that cover the club, where last year was a popular topic. As every Cincinnati school kid knows, the game changed when Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt plucked an Andy Dalton pass off the line scrimmage with 52 seconds left in the first half and went 29 yards for a touchdown that broke a 10-10 tie.
"There were a lot of plays after that play that mattered, but that was a big play for them," Lewis said. "We had some momentum going and an opportunity to score right before halftime. Any time you have a chance to score points and you give up points the other way, that swing stings a little bit. But there was a lot of football left to play and we didn't overcome it and we never got back in it."
A lot of that was because the Texans raced 5.4 yards per their 35 carries. The postcard Bengaldom took into the offseason was of running back Arian Foster stiffarming the secondary for a 42-yard touchdown run with 5:15 left for the final score. Safety Chris Crocker was one of the prominent victims, but he's also symbolic of how this defense bears no resemblance to the one that arrived in Houston last year.
Crocker, with a knee injury, and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, with an ankle injury, were limping. One of the team's top run stoppers, tackle Pat Sims, was out (ankle). But Crocker, Maualuga and Sims have all been key figures in a furious last eight games the Bengals allowed just 97 yards per game on the ground. Meanwhile, the Bengals pass rush, anchored by Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, has matured with a total of 51 sacks, second-most in the NFL.
And the corners? The Bengals allowed just two TD passes in December and haven't allowed one longer than 27 yards since Oct. 14, a huge key against a Texans offense that lives off big throws to Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson, like the 40-yard touchdown he got against the Bengals in last year's Wild Card game.
But Crocker, who may be dinged again with a quad injury that took him out of Sunday's win against the Ravens in the first quarter, is starting from scratch and isn't thinking about last January.
"I'd rather not even say. I'd like to keep it to myself and let it play out," Crocker said after Sunday's game. "I don't want to make this week about how we're so much a different team than last year, whatever. Let's just play. Let's not really talk. For me, that's how I'm approaching this game. It wasn't nice. I'm not trying to re-live it until you just brought it up. It's one of those things; I didn't have my best day. That's 360 and some days ago."
Crocker, one of 15 Bengals active in three of the last four postseason runs, is also one of 34 players with the team last year in Houston. And you can add cornerback Jason Allen since he played for the Texans that day. With his top offensive players enduring the playoff din of Reliant, Lewis likes his team's experience even if it is young in age.
"Some of the core offensive skill players played in the game last year. We've got a tight end (Orson Charles) and receiver (Marvin Jones) who didn't, and an offensive guard (Kevin Zeitler) and center (Trevor Robinson) who didn't," Lewis said. "But for the most part offensively, we're in a little better shape that way."
And on defense, except for WILL rookie backer Vontaze Burfict and rookie nickel backer Emmanuel Lamur, Lewis has either returners, or a new veteran like cornerback Terence Newman that had five playoff starts for the Cowboys for Cincinnati's second-most playoff appearances.
Kicker Josh Brown, who signed Dec. 6, leads the team with nine postseason games with Seattle from 2003-07. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is third, with four games for New England from 2008-11.
Experience or no experience, a sure sign that the 4-1 December has vanished is that Lewis is no longer talking about momentum.
"Momentum finished yesterday. It's what you do now that counts. We get no points for what we did at the end of the season," Lewis said. "We earned a spot to go into this and we're one of 12 teams now. We have to go back and get ready to go. We've got to play better than we played and we have to have the sense of urgency, the sense to finish, the resiliency that we've had throughout the second half of the year. That's the only thing we have."
Four starters haven't taken a playoff snap, second-year left guard Clint Boling and rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler, along with Burfict and Marvin Jones.