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'Winning makes believers...'

Posted: 6:40 a.m.

For a team that has won just 11 times in the last 35 games, Sunday can't get here fast enough.

Leon Hall found himself quoting Paul Brown last week. The line that head coach Marvin Lewis had painted on the wall in the team hallway all those years ago in that first offseason.

"Winning makes believers of us all," Hall said. "So simple, but it really is true. I think that's why it's a big game. You start out winning your first couple, or even just one, and you start to buy into it that much more."

A straw poll in the locker room says Lewis has done what some thought he couldn't do after one winning season in six years and losing ones in the last two. (In the last 23 games started by their franchise quarterback the Bengals have won just seven times.)

The motto "Fight Back" that Lewis had printed on the team's preseason T-shirts has caught fire as the Bengals ready for Sunday's 1 p.m. opener at Paul Brown Stadium against Denver.

"I feel like everybody's on the same page," said defensive end Robert Geathers, heading into his sixth season. "Everybody has the same vision. Everybody wants to prove we're a good team. Erasing the doubt. Getting the respect of your peers in the league. For me, I want to show I'm back from my injury. Fight back. I think we've started out on the same page. I haven't felt this way since I've been here. It's going the right way."

Geathers, off of microfracture knee surgery, is one of the 12 starters that didn't play in last season's finale of a 4-11-1 death march in which the Bengals won their last three in an injury-plagued mess highlighted by quarterback Carson Palmer's elbow injury that cost him 12 games.

"You have to look at how we finished last year," Geathers said of Lewis. "He's our leader. We have to believe in him and he has to believe in us and that's what he has us doing."

If anybody else feels differently, no one is saying it. Even Chad Ochocinco, the most vocal of critics during much of the last two seasons, has been the Poster Child (Please) of The New Feel. The man who wanted to blow himself out of here in a trade was on hawking tickets this past week.

The Ocho was part of the drive to keep the PBS sellout streak alive at 45, or ever since the week the then-Chad Johnson guaranteed a victory over the unbeaten Chiefs in Lewis' first season of 2003.

It worked then (a stunning 24-19 victory) and it worked now with the Bengals and a couple of local companies (Channel 12, Kroger) pitching in to get the game on local TV. It will be live on Channel 12 in Cincinnati, Channel 7 in Dayton, Ohio, and Channel 27 in Lexington, Ky.

Lewis is banking on veterans like The Ocho and fellow wide receiver Chris Henry that had such disappointing seasons in 2008 to be inspired by individual pride. That will be teamed with the grit fortified by return from injury by guys like Palmer and Geathers.

That, Lewis believes, will be supplemented by a collective chip on the shoulder supplied by once highly-drafted players elsewhere who had been sentenced to the street like No. 4 pick Cedric Benson, five-time Pro Bowler Roy Williams, second-rounder Tank Johnson and third-rounder Chris Crocker.

How far has that 2005 AFC North title faded? Just 10 players are left from that team.

"There aren't many of us left, but we know what it takes," Geathers said. "Everyone inside our locker room has won at some point in their career. Guys like Tank and Roy have been to the playoffs. We know how to go about it. We don't have the attitude of a losing team. That's not how we practice."

Look around that room and it seems everybody has an unwritten incentive in their 2009 contract.

This is Henry's first Opening Day appearance since 2006, his off-field problems now seemingly past him.

"I'm just excited for this team; I can't wait," he said. "We can set the tone Sunday. This game is going to be a big one for us."

Emerging young players like Hall in his third season and defensive tackle Domata Peko in his fourth sense honors like Pro Bowl possibilities.

"But you have to win," Hall said.

Peko, Hall and middle linebacker Dhani Jones were the only players to start all 16 games on defense last year and Peko ended up with the second most tackles in the league by a defensive tackle. Last week his teammates voted him and Jones the defensive captains.

Peko is an example of the solid locker room guy that Lewis has tried to cultivate in the ashes of the psychological implosions suffered by the '05 and '06 teams. With pros like John Thornton, Justin Smith and Peko's locker mate Bryan Robinson already on the line, Lewis sees Peko passing it on to second-year tackle Pat Sims and rookie end Michael Johnson.

"I'm not a guy that talks a lot," Peko said. "I'm a person that leads by example. I lead through the film ... I want to help get this defense to a new level. We're going to be doing good things.

"It seems like I just came in yesterday. With John Thornton, Justin Smith, my man B-Rob, they helped me and molded me into the player I am today."

Peko was at a hamburger joint after practice Thursday and a season-ticket holder asked him when they were going to win. He can relate.

"(The fans) are hungry. They're like us," he said. "We want to fight for this town."

There's no escaping the similarities of last year's opener, and if you don't think openers set tones, how about that 17-10 egg-laying in Baltimore last season in which the offense didn't score a touchdown. Remember? The defense got a turnover deep in the first minute and the offense gave it right back when a Palmer pass bounced off T.J. Houshmandzadeh's hands? It started out like the No. 32 offense and that's how it ended.

Now, like then, the Bengals are facing a rookie head coach in Josh McDaniels. And an unsettled new quarterback (Kyle Orton) in a new offense. But, as Lewis points out, that game was on the road, and the Bengals suffered the twin killing: Turnovers on offense and big plays on defense. The Ravens scored both touchdowns off long reverses.

"We played pretty well except we turned the ball over. We popped the ball up in the air after the defense turns it over on the second play," said Lewis, still fuming. "You have to take advantage. It's repetitive what we keep saying. But it's making plays when you get the opportunity. It doesn't matter whose name is on the stadium, who's on the depth chart or a sheet of paper ... you give up two big plays on defense and turn the ball over and you lose. There's no getting around it."

Lewis says he likes his team's state of mind, not to mention the state of health. After having a club record on injured reserve last year, only two starters on the depth chart Lewis handed out at the beginning of training camp didn't make it to the gate in tight end Reggie Kelly and right tackle Andre Smith.

"Guys are hungry; you can tell by the way we played in the preseason," Peko said. "Guys are coming together after practice, watching film. Everyone just wants to win. They're tired of losing."

For openers, not a bad motto.

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