The Bengals play the Ravens this Sunday at 4:15 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium in what amounts to a play-in playoff game. If the Bengals win they go to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and for the third time under head coach Marvin Lewis matching Paul Brown's three postseason appearances from 1970-75.
Naturally, the Bengals bid for their first Wild Card berth since Brown's 11-3 team in '75 comes against his old Cleveland Browns.
If they don't win, the Bengals can't win multiple tiebreakers because of the grueling AFC losses by a total of three points to Denver and Houston. The only tiebreaker they can win if they lose to the Ravens and fall to 9-7 is a head-to-head against Tennessee, which can only be generated by a Jets loss in Miami and a Raiders loss at home against San Diego, or a Denver loss at home against the Chiefs coupled with a Jets loss.
Lewis's 6-2 record at PBS against the Baltimore team for whom he made his name back in the day is one of the numbers in Cincinnati's favor in a matchup the Bengals lost 36 days ago in Baltimore, 31-24.
And Lewis has enormous confidence in the AFC's youngest team because he thinks it is just starting something special instead of heading into a one-shot deal.
"This club has a chance to keep building and becoming a perennial playoff team; this is another step in the process," Lewis said after Saturday's 23-16 win over Arizona made this Sunday possible.
There are also numbers that are working against the Bengals against a Ravens team needing to win for coach John Harbaugh's first AFC North title, and a playoff bye. The Bengals are 0-3 against the Ravens and Steelers, 1-6 against teams that now have winning records, and the explosive Ravens scorched them on numerous big pass plays in Baltimore last month.
More than half of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's 270 yards came on four passes for 144 yards and the Bengals are coming off Arizona's torrid fourth quarter Saturday in which quarterback John Skelton threw for 204 yards, 116 coming before the final drive on just four passes.
"We've got to clean up things; we've got to clean up some things on defense," outside linebacker Thomas Howard said Saturday. "Even when you win you always have stuff to clean up.
"My whole thought process is, can we just finish a team? We're up and we're playing good, but this entire season we've made the games too interesting."
Saturday's game marked the 10th game of the season decided by a touchdown or less. The Bengals have won five games and lost two in the fourth quarter and on Saturday they gave up 17 points in the final 11:25 while turning the ball over twice and committing three penalties for 27 yards after having no turnovers and three penalties for 20 yards in the first 48:25.
"I don't think composure is an issue for us," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who cites the lack of consistency. "We played great team football, but we have to finish. There's things we have to learn from every single game and I think we did. The defense got put in a bad situation by us two weeks ago against Houston and when they were in that situation they weren't able to win, but this one they were.
"We needed one more quarter to make it a good game offensively."
The Bengals go back to work Monday to start cleaning it up in an effort to find that consistency after having Christmas off and before taking the regular Tuesday off. Then they'll hit the field Wednesday with what should be the same roster they had at their disposal against Arizona.
Wide receiver Andre Caldwell (groin/abdomen) looks to be doubtful and could miss his third straight game. Which would take away from each team one receiver that scored a long touchdown last month in Baltimore. Caldwell had a 49-yarder and the shelved Anquan Boldin had a 35-yarder for the Ravens.
But there are favorable numbers for the Bengals heading into Sunday:
» Not only is Lewis 6-2 against the Ravens at home, but he's 13-6 at PBS in December, 5-3 in home finales, and hasn't lost one since 2006 when old friend Shayne Graham pushed a 39-yarder wide with eight seconds left against the Steelers that would have put the Bengals in the playoffs.
(Naturally, Graham could be kicking for the Ravens on Sunday if Billy Cundiff's injured calf doesn't respond in time.)
Lewis, the Ravens defensive coordinator during six seasons before he came to Cincinnati, has never been swept by the Ravens in a season he had his starting quarterback for both games.
And he's got confidence in his young team because he thinks it is absorbing each lesson as agonizing as it is.
"I knew we would come out today and make plays to win the game. I had no doubt in my mind, and the defense showed that kind of resiliency," Lewis said postgame Saturday. "It was a great week of practice. Unfortunately, we lost a game two weeks ago, but you have to live and learn from that. We came into the game with a great focus this week and showed it out there on the field.
"Last week we were able to work on some fundamental things in practice, we'll have another good week on it this week, and we're playing for something special now. It's all out in front of us."
Lewis has never quite had a team like this in December. Not only is it fueled by the rookie duo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, but it also has a reliable reservoir of veterans seeking that first playoff berth like Howard, cornerback Nate Clements, and outside linebacker Manny Lawson, along with guys that have been there before like Super Bowl champions Donald Lee and Gibril Wilson.
Howard said he signed on in free agency with a team that had so many question marks around it because of his confidence in Lewis, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald
"I knew one thing: I knew we would play good defense," Howard said. "I was excited to be coached by Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer and Jeff. I knew they had been good on defense. I knew they had been No. 4 in the league in 2009 and had injuries in 2010. I knew they had young linebackers and I was excited to be part of that crew."
» Despite Flacco's torch job on the Bengals defense last month (105.5 passer rating on 270 yards and two touchdowns), Zimmer has had pretty good success against him. In their six previous matchups, the Bengals held Flacco to four touchdowns and nine interceptions for a 62.3 passer rating. Plus, the Bengals have held the Ravens to one touchdown in the last eight quarters at PBS.
» Back in November in Baltimore, the best Bengals pass rusher, left end Carlos Dunlap, was less than 100 percent when he reaggravated his hamstring injury in warmups. He had no sacks after getting three in his previous two games when he looked to be getting hot. He looks like he's healthy again after getting a sack with three more pressures on Saturday. The Bengals are 3-0 in games he has sacks.
"He's a freak," Howard said Saturday.
» Last month, the Ravens put Dalton through one of his two most miserable days as a pro with a career-high three interceptions. He's thrown just one since and the Bengals are 5-3 in games he doesn't throw a pick. On Saturday he became the first rookie in history to throw 20 touchdown passes while starting at least eight wins. Flacco went 11-5 as a rookie in 2008, but he threw 14 touchdown passes.
"They've got a lot of good players out there, and they've done a really good job," Dalton said Saturday of the Ravens. "It's come down to a good week of preparation and going out and executing on Sunday. You can't ask for it any other way. This is where we want to be, with a chance for the playoffs. And, we're in control of that."
» Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green didn't play in Baltimore last month, so the Bnegals have a shot at matching the 165 yards Ravens rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith put on them. Smith beat the Bengals deep with plays of 38 and 49 yards and now the Bengals can roll out Green with his three catches of plus-50 yards, his 1,031 yards, and his seven touchdowns. In games Green scores, the Bengals are 4-3 and he's scored in three of his four AFC North games.
"A.J. Green should be the Rookie of the Year; hands down," Howard said. "Andy's been exceptional. If A.J. is one, he's two. I'm excited about these guys. Jermaine (Gresham). They're all young players."
» The Bengals have never had a rookie quarterback and rookie receiver lead them into the playoffs, or a second-year tight end for that matter. A touchdown on Sunday would give Gresham seven for the year, the most by a Bengals tight end since Rodney Holman had nine in 1989. After tying Tony McGee's six in 1997 with a nice reach-and-snatch across his body for an 11-yard touchdown catch against the Cards, the Bengals are 5-1 in games Gresham scores.
He had one in Baltimore that would have cut the lead to 31-28 with 5:35 left in the game and would have given the Bengals a shot at a tying field goal from the Ravens 17 with 33 seconds left, but it was overturned on a controversial replay.
» Bengals-Ravens is always a game of grinding field position. The Bengals are fourth in the NFL covering kicks and have the NFL's best drive start in holding foes to the 20.2-yard line on kickoffs in opposing a Ravens return team that is fifth in the league. The Ravens are next to last in the NFL covering kicks with the fourth-worst drive start.