Marvin Lewis treated his ninth season in Cincinnati as if it were his first. "A new beginning at the same address," says the Bengals' coach, who steered the NFL's third-youngest team (average age: 25.7) to a 9--7 record. "We threw out all of the old and began with the new. We started from scratch. I think what we're building is special."
With rookie QB Andy Dalton replacing Carson Palmer (who was traded to the Raiders on Oct. 18 for a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder), the Bengals grew up fast this season. Though they bring youthful vigor into the playoffs, their inexperience was evident down the stretch, when they lost three of their last five. The Bengals went 0--4 against AFC North bullies Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the kind of mark that can't be ignored when assessing playoff readiness. And Lewis has lost his only two playoff appearances—to the Steelers in 2005 and the Jets in '09.
The Bengals do have a few things to feel good about, such as the poise of Dalton (who threw 20 touchdown passes), the big-play ability of rookie A.J. Green (who was named to the Pro Bowl) and the ruggedness of veteran Cedric Benson (who rushed for 1,067 yards). Tight end Jermaine Gresham provides Dalton a big target both underneath and downfield, and Jerome Simpson is a solid No. 2 receiver. Cincinnati's offense is good but not great; its most prolific days are well ahead of it.
But even if the Bengals don't light up the scoreboard now, their defense can keep them in games. It sacked opposing quarterbacks 45 times (good for fifth in the NFL), with defensive tackle Geno Atkins accounting for eight. That pressure helped the D rank seventh in the league in yards per completion (11.5). Cincinnati is sturdy up the middle, stout against the run and quick off the edge.
Still, the Bengals haven't always been able to clamp down on drives late, in particular during a last-second 20--19 loss at home to the Texans in Week 14—a defeat they can avenge on Saturday in Houston. Earlier in the season, Lewis spoke of the youthful energy around his team, how laughter has returned to the locker room and how Cincy's plane rides are spent reliving great plays. "To see the joy in their faces has been amazing," he says.
Precociousness might not be enough to take the Bengals deep this month, but Cincy's fun has just begun.
Receiving yards for A.J. Green, a record for a Bengals rookie. Only five Cincinnati players—Eddie Brown, Cris Collinsworth, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson, Tim McGee and Carl Pickens—have had more in a season.
Passing yards allowed by the Bengals to Texans quarterback T.J. Yates in Houston's 20--19 victory at Cincinnati in Week 14, the most the team has yielded to a rookie since the Ravens' Kyle Boller (302 yards) in 2003.
ON THE SPOT
In his first two years as an outside linebacker, Rey Maualuga was talented but undisciplined. During training camp defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer challenged Maualuga to become more focused and moved him inside, where he had played at USC. Maualuga responded with a career-high 88 tackles in 13 games for the NFL's seventh-ranked D. (He had 75 in 16 last season.) The 6'2", 260-pound Maualuga, who last year pleaded guilty to a 2010 DUI charge, credits part of his improvement to becoming a father last month. "I have something to wake up to, to play for," he said. "I know I can't be that Rey I used to be, that knucklehead."
JOHN BIEVER (DALTON)
BURNING BRIGHT Dalton has shown uncommon poise for a rookie, running an offense that will only get better.
TOM DIPACE (MAUALUGA)