Underdog is here

Posted: 10:40 p.m.

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Willie Anderson and John Thornton always seem to know when they're coming.

When Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is looking for those inspiring movie clips, a lot of times it's one of those us-against-them scenes from an action flick.

"Where two guys take out about 20 guys," Thornton said. "That's the message I think. It's us against everybody else. The two guys always win. That's how we have to play it. That's how we have to go out and fight and handle things."

It took just two straight losses for the bandwagon jumpers to leap from the Bengals, and that's just fine with them with Sunday's AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Steelers staring at them. They won 11 of their first 14 when they weren't supposed to win.

"We were the glamour boys in the league. Everyone wanted to talk about us, interview us," Thornton said of the heady days of December. "Now they're saying we're not good. That's fine. We're not here for the publicity, we're here to win."

This is the Bengals at their best. The Bengals haven't had to be at their best the last two weeks, a benefit of winning early enough to secure a home playoff game. But they are at their best when no one thinks they can be. Like quarterback Jon Kitna said, "We play better when our backs are against the wall."

That's where their backs are against a Steelers team that hasn't lost since the Bengals beat them by a touchdown 29 days ago. The Bengals, who have been outscored, 74-30, the past two weeks, wouldn't have it any other way.

"We earned the right to lay an egg," Anderson said. "We had to come out of the break (the Nov. 13 bye) and we said we had to win four out of those five games. We had to win those three crucial division games, and we did. That's what put us in our position now. Now we've put the whole season behind us. It feels like we're 0-0. It's Sept. 9."

Anderson was talking about the New Year's weather, a balmy 62 degrees, but he was also talking about his first day reporting to work in the playoffs after 10 seasons and 158 games.

"This is a new thing for us," Anderson said. "I always thought it was going to be zero degrees and freezing. That's the way I always pictured the week of a playoff game in Cincinnati."

Lewis is trying to make it just another week. The only hint of the postseason is the NFL playoffs logo appearing on the weekly schedules posted about the locker room. But for guys like Anderson and center Rich Braham, who took 143 games to get to this moment) it's obviously a special week. He doesn't doubt that Sunday is the most important and most intense game he'll play yet as a Bengal.

"This is the toughest game of any one this season," Anderson said. "It's going to be Pittsburgh pride. They're going to be saying, 'We can't let the Bengals beat us two times in a row.' "

Lewis didn't show the Bengals any ambushes Monday, but he did make sure they watched parts of the win over the Steelers.

"Just to see the kind of passion we played with in that game," Thornton said. "Even though things didn't go right, we were just physical and we played with passion and that's how you've got to play in this league. If you don't, the result is what happened (Sunday); if you don't play a game like everything is on the line. I think this team knows the line we have to play with the attitude."

Thornton has watched this team be comfortable digging out of hole after hole, mainly the 1-4 starts to open the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

"It seems like it's been like that since I've been here," Thornton said. "We were 0-3 and fought our way out of it. We were 1-4 (and) fought our way back ... underdogs usually have an edge. I'm sure we'll be the underdogs. That's good."

The Bengals seem a lot more comfortable playing without the crown than with it, given that they haven't won since they won the division. But like Kitna said, "The same thing happened to Indy, but no one said anything about that."

Thornton said, "We learned everything we needed to learn this year," and he's helping teach the latest lesson as one of the dozen players with playoff experience.

And Thornton has taken the time to view Pittsburgh from the stands. Last year he went to Heinz Field with a friend to watch the Steelers fend off the Jets in a frenzied second- round game. Yes, he was the only guy in his section wearing an orange stocking cap and a drunk Steelers fan tried to lure him into a fight, saying, among other things, "How can you wear a Bengals hat to a Steelers game?"

"I've told guys (the game) is going to seem like it's real short; you don't want to get behind," Thornton said.

For Anderson, anyway, time and the weather have stood still.

"We fought for that home playoff game," Anderson said. "It's what this city wanted. It's going to bring a lot of money into this city. Good economic times for the city of Cincinnati."

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