Stretching with the Bengals


A.J. Green

As the Bengals open another playoff run under head coach Marvin Lewis in Pittsburgh this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), they are vowing this one is different.

And they're going to be right. There is virtually no one left from both the 2005 and 2006 teams that lost their last three games of the season and the 2009 team didn't have wide receiver A.J.  Green or defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

Vertical danger in Green's 16.9 yards per catch. Inside pass rush from Atkins's 6.5 sacks. When the Bengals 2009 AFC North champs lost four out of their last six, none of their receivers averaged 15 yards per catch and after Antwan Odom's injury in October they had no one with more than 3.5 sacks.

And if their best pass rusher, Carlos Dunlap, another guy not around in '09, doesn't play Sunday, he'll be back at some point down the stretch.

"I think it's a new experience for everybody," Lewis said. "I don't know that the 2009 team handled the last month of the season very well. I think this team will handle it better."

I've learned from that," he said, but he wouldn't divulge the magic ingredient. I'm not going to tell you because then you'll tell everybody else." 

Welcome to an NFL stretch run, where the days are few and the laughs even fewer.

Lewis and the Bengals have been in a few of these. For the sixth time in his nine seasons as head coach, the Bengals are at least .500 either before or after the first game in December. After going 18-21 in December and January, he knows how precious those days are and so he reminded his guys there isn't a month left or five games left, or two division games left.

32 days.

Just 32 days left in the season.

"We don't have much time and if we're going to make a run we have to start now," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "I think we stated that last week when Marv came in and said there are six games left and each of them is huge."

Green and Atkins aren't the only answers, of course. But they'll help. One of the reasons the Bengals didn't get much pressure up font is that Peko missed all of that December '09 with arthroscopic knee surgery. Not only are the Bengals different up front, but they've also got three new cornerbacks in Nate Clements, Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings that weren't around in December 2009.

(And how big is Green? It took him less than 15 minutes to score a touchdown against the Steelers. Cincinnati's previous No. 1 receiver, Chad Ochocinco always struggled against a Dick LeBeau defense. He scored two touchdowns against Pittsburgh once LeBeau returned there in 2004 with his last in '08 and he never had a 100-yard game against him.)   

That's just it. The Bengals can't really take anything away from that stretch run. It'd be like studying a biology book for a history test given by a math teacher. Even though that AFC North title is just two years old, the starting lineup in Pittsburgh this Sunday has 14 different players than the one that lined up for the Wild Card game against the Jets on Jan. 9, 2010 at Paul Brown Stadium.

"We are a different team, we really are," safety Chris Crocker said. "We're more veteran guys, an older team. More experience. We are just a different team. We just are, I don't think we played as well the second half of ballgames that season as we are now. Vice versa, teams weren't scoring as many points as they are now vs. '09 season. You know, each year is different and you can't worry about what you did in the past because nobody cares."

Or, as center Kyle Cook said, "Everything is different. Not only is it a different team, it's a different scenario, different opponents. Everything is different."

Indeed, at this point in '09 the Bengals were done with their division schedule and they had home games against the struggling Lions and Chiefs. Now, their two biggest rivals are left in the Steelers and Ravens and two of the remaining PBS games are against division leaders Houston and Baltimore.

"We've got a lot of new guys on the squad," Peko said. "We've got a lot of hungry, young relentless kind of dudes on this squad. It's a lot different team than '09. This team is a mix of older and younger guys."

And the scenarios are pure Hollywood. The Bengals are in the middle of Tebowmania, they could get matched up against the quarterback that led them to the '09 playoffs, and they need a win from another one of their old QBs, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to blunt Denver's pilgrimage with Tebow.

Even though the Bengals are the clear-cut sixth seed at 7-4, the 6-5 teams have a much easier schedule. While the remaining Bengals foes have a combined win-loss percentage of .545, the Jets go .381, the Titans .426 and the Broncos .473.

"All I know," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said, "is each day is more important than the next and you only take it one day at a time because that's all you can control."

Well, you can also have quarterback Andy Dalton throwing to Green. It looks to be the next explosive NFL duo and on Wednesday the media was asking Green if he's got mental telepathy with Dalton after Sunday's supernatural 51-yard catch that won the game.

Green, who has more catches than sound bites (44-none), politely put up with it like he always does.

"It's working a little bit. We're getting there. We still have a long way to go," he said.

Someone asked Green if Dalton has thrown a ball yet that he even thought that he couldn't get.

"Not yet," he said with a smile. "Still looking for that one."

The only place Dalton and Green seem to hang out is in practice. They don't even use extra time to throw all that much.

"I feel we get enough work in practice, especially coming to the end of the season," Green said. "I try to run the right routes, do the right assignments, try to do my job and their job is to get me the ball."

Yes, he says, it's nice he and Dalton have the same personality.

"Both quiet and just like to work," he said.

So that makes it a heck of a lot different than some other stretch runs around here.

Dalton was a little more effusive. But in true 2011 Bengals fashion, not much. On Wednesday he recalled the first time he thought he and Green had some chemistry.

"I remember we had a double move on, and I underthrew it a little bit and he jumped over a couple guys and made the catch," he said. "It was one of the first practices we had out there.

"He's real easy to get along with. He's a great teammate and works hard."

Dalton agrees having the same type of personality has hooked the duo up. Both are quiet, but they get grim when it doesn't go right and can get emotional on the field.

"I think so," Dalton said. "That's kind of why we've been able to connect quickly, which has helped."

Green, emerging from a battle with physical Brown cornerback Joe Haden, now draws Ike Taylor, the man that shut down The Ocho all those years. He says it's going to be a different kind of matchup.

"He doesn't use his hands; he likes to move," Green said. "He's a veteran. Nine years plus. Crafty."

Just the combo the Bengals need down the stretch. The youth of Green and the craftiness of the Steelers.

"If we win all our games, do we get in?" Cook asked. "Probably? OK. Then we've got to win all our games."

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