CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals think they’re a better team — especially on defense — heading into the playoffs for the second season in a row.
They finished 9-7 last season, earned a wild card and lost at Houston 31-10 in the first round.
A 13-10 win in Pittsburgh on Sunday clinched another wild-card berth, only the second time in franchise history that they’ve gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
They’re locked into the No. 6 seed regardless of what they do on Sunday against Baltimore (10-5) at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals (9-6) said their playoff appearance last season — when quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green were rookies — taught them a lot about what it’s like when it’s one-and-out.
“I think it’s helpful anytime you can get to the postseason and really see what it is about and just how games, how momentum can swing,” safety Chris Crocker said on Wednesday. “Just crazy things. We saw that last year. I think that will help guys going into it — kind of knowing what the atmosphere will be like.”
Cincinnati’s limited playoff experience has been a detriment. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. They’ve made it three times previously under coach Marvin Lewis — 2005, 2009 and 2011 — and lost their opening games by 14, 10 and 21 points.
Going for the third time in four years should help them keep the postseason in perspective. Lewis pointed out that there was no giddiness in the locker room when the Bengals clinched a berth on Sunday.
“When you’ve been beyond that, you realize there are bigger fish to fry,” Lewis said. “I think our group understands this now. Appreciate it, feel good about it, celebrate it, but realize what it took to get there and that it takes more, because now we’re going to pare it down again.”
They’re encouraged by the way their defense has dominated teams during a 6-1 streak that got them into the postseason. The front four has gotten pressure on quarterbacks consistently, with tackle Geno Atkins emerging as one of the NFL’s top linemen.
Atkins leads NFL interior linemen with 12 1/2 sacks. Cincinnati has 47 sacks, one behind Denver for the league lead and one shy of the franchise record. The defense is ranked No. 6 in the league this week in yards allowed and has given up 13 points or fewer in six of the past seven games.
“Our defense is really clicking right now, man,” tackle Domata Peko said. “I love the way we’re playing and I love the energy we’re playing with. You have to have that chemistry, and it seems we’re building on that. Everyone’s been playing great.”
The defense played its best game in Pittsburgh. Leon Hall’s interception return accounted for Cincinnati’s only touchdown. The defense repeatedly pushed the Steelers out of field goal range in the fourth quarter, allowing Cincinnati to win it with a field goal set up by an interception in the closing seconds.
The Bengals hadn’t beaten the Steelers since 2009, dropping four in a row. They’ve also lost four straight to the Ravens and were 0-6 the past two seasons against their top AFC North rivals before the breakthrough win in Pittsburgh.
“You think about that stuff,” Crocker said. “In my mind, we hadn’t beaten anybody good, so what are we going to do now? We really stepped it up. I feel good from that standpoint.”
The Bengals won’t know their first-round opponent until after their game against Baltimore. Currently, New England is in line for the No. 3 seed and would host Cincinnati.
If the Patriots lose at home to Miami and the Ravens win at Paul Brown Stadium, Baltimore would move into the No. 3 spot and would host the Bengals in the first round of the playoffs.
If the Patriots win, they have a chance to move up to a better seed depending upon how other games turn out. There’s a chance the Bengals could open at New England, at Houston or at Denver.
Notes: The Bengals moved their practice on Wednesday to the University of Cincinnati’s covered practice field because a winter storm moved through the area. The Bengals are the most northern team without their own covered field. Last year, they practiced in the cold leading up to the playoff game in Houston, and Dalton got sick. … K Mike Nugent fully participated in practice. He has missed the past three games with an injured right calf. … Cornerbacks Adam “Pacman” Jones, Terence Newman and Jason Allen were limited by hamstring injuries.