Normally in the NFL, a 9-5 record and a one-game lead in the division is worthy of praise. But after laying an egg in Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football last week, the Bengals were called “pretenders,” “frauds,” and worse.
“You’re playing against a 5-8 team and get embarrassed on national television,” said NBC analyst Rodney Harrison. “I was very disappointed but it just shows you that this is a very talented team but they’re not a mentally tough team.”
Those words and others like them did not sit well in the Bengals locker room.
“It’s all perception,” Michael Johnson told me. “You’ve got to look at the actual numbers. People that really understand football understand what happened. If you pay attention and really know what you’re talking about and aren’t just popping off blowing steam, then you see what happened.”
The first quarter in Pittsburgh was an aberration. A dropped snap by punter Kevin Huber on a frigid night handed the Steelers seven points. The first punt return touchdown allowed by the Bengals in more than two years gift-wrapped seven more. And an unintentional fair catch by Cedric Peerman helped give Pittsburgh the ball at the Cincinnati 47-yard line, leading to the Steelers longest touchdown drive of the night.
“We had some bad things happen to us early in the game in Pittsburgh that are unfortunate,” said Marvin Lewis. “The breaks that fell their way put us behind. That’s what happened. That one’s over. Everybody thought the sky had fallen in. It didn’t fall in yet.”
“That was just one of those games that just got away from us early,” said Chris Crocker. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance to really compete and that’s not usually how we play. It was just one of those games. The way to make yourself feel better is to win. That’s really the only remedy.”
The cure for what ailed everyone in Bengals Nation was Sunday’s 42-14 thumping of the Vikings. Cincinnati dominated everything that didn’t involve Minnesota’s spectacular rookie Cordarrelle Patterson to remain undefeated at home.
“All week I was saying that the intensity had picked up,” said Wallace Gilberry. “The fire was re-lit. I’m not saying that we deserved that loss against the Steelers, but we definitely needed it. It put things in perspective and it woke me up and woke up other guys that needed it.”
“No one in here panicked,” said Johnson. “No one in here was worried. We came in and regrouped and you see the result.”
Cincinnati’s win plus Baltimore’s loss to New England clinched the AFC North for the Bengals. But that’s only the start of what they hope to accomplish.
“We’ve got all our eggs in the basket now,” said Coach Lewis. “That’s what we started out to do.”
“Anytime you get to the postseason it feels really good,” said Crocker. “Because once you get there, anybody has a shot at the ultimate goal.”
For Michael Johnson, that makes four playoff appearances in the five NFL seasons. The Bengals are one of only five teams to accomplish that feat (Saints could make it six).
“It’s what I’ve expected since I was drafted here,” Johnson told me. “I heard a lot of negativity on draft day and the weeks to follow, but all I knew was to come in and work as hard as I could and try to get better. We have a lot of talented players here and everybody is doing a great job of stepping up and taking ownership of what we’re trying to do around here. If just feels good to be a part of it.”
Last January, Johnson returned to school at Georgia Tech in hopes of earning his degree. The 26-year-old defensive end is still a few credit hours short, but he did not sign up for classes this year. Instead, he’s got a trip to the Meadowlands planned for early February.
“I’ve got big plans baby,” said Johnson. “Big plans. Come with me.”
And don’t jump out of the plane when it hits a little turbulence.
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