Bengals lack signature win heading into playoffs

The Bengals had seven chances to beat a top-tier team during the

season, and lost all seven games. Their eighth opportunity comes in

the playoffs.

One more chance to show they belong with the league’s elite.

The Bengals’ enchanted year has stretched into the postseason, a

most improbable finishing place for one of the NFL’s youngest

teams. They had a lot of things go their way – the schedule was

favorable, most of their key players avoided serious injuries.

And, in the end, the Bengals (9-7) got into the playoffs by

getting a lot of help. The Jets, Broncos and Raiders melted down,

allowing Cincinnati to claim the final wild card berth despite a

24-16 loss to Baltimore. They’ll play at Houston on Saturday.

”The sky’s the limit for our team,” offensive tackle Andre

Smith said. ”I think we’re going to take advantage of this

week.”

They’ve gotten the chance because they’ve been good at beating

bad teams.

The Bengals went 0-7 against other teams in the playoffs – AFC

North rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as well as Denver, San

Francisco and Houston. Their nine wins came against teams that had

a combined 43-85 record.

Five of their nine wins came against teams that finished in last

place. They beat only one team that finished with a winning record

– Tennessee.

”It’s just unfortunate that we’re losing to some of the better

teams,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. ”We’ve been in each of

those games, a play or two away from winning those games. But we’re

just happy around here that we’re in the dance and have to now

prove to the world that we belong here.”

Although they haven’t beaten another playoff team, they’ve come

close. Often, they’ve fallen behind and rallied to another

near-miss. Their only blow-out loss was 35-7 at Pittsburgh.

Otherwise, they’ve lost by 2, 5, 7, 7, 1 and 8 points to the other

playoff-bound teams.

Good enough to stick with `em, not good enough to beat `em.

”We’ve just got to cut out the mistakes,” receiver Jerome

Simpson said. ”We’re young, but now it’s time for us to grow

up.”

They’ve had two opponents come to Paul Brown Stadium and clinch

championships this season. Baltimore’s win on Sunday gave the

Ravens the AFC North title and the No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

On Dec. 11, the Texans came to town and secured the first

playoff spot on franchise history, winning the AFC South with a

20-19 victory behind rookie quarterback T.J. Yates. The fifth-round

pick led Houston on an 80-yard drive with a little more than 2

minutes left, throwing the winning touchdown pass with 2 seconds to

go.

One consolation: The Bengals aren’t the only team heading into

the playoffs with big questions.

The Texans didn’t win again after clinching in Cincinnati,

dropping their last three games. Coach Gary Kubiak rested a lot of

his starters during the second half of a 23-22 loss to Tennessee on

Sunday, keeping them fresh for the playoffs.

Denver also lost its last three games: 41-23 to New England,

40-14 to Buffalo and 7-3 to Kansas City.

The Bengals have a feeling they could break a long drought – no

playoff victory since 1990 – if they can avoid falling behind in

the first half. They rallied from double-digit deficits three times

in the second half during the season, but fell short a lot more

often.

”I know we have the fight part right,” coach Marvin Lewis

said. ”There is no quit in this team. We need to get the mental

part corrected early in the game. We cannot put ourselves

behind.”

Some of it can be attributed to their youth. The Bengals were

the youngest team in the AFC heading into the season, led by a

rookie quarterback and rookie receiver.

The challenge is to show some poise in the playoffs.

”We definitely haven’t played our best game yet,” rookie

quarterback Andy Dalton said. ”It’s what we’re working for. We’ve

got to go put it all together and just let it all out. Once we’re

able to do that, this team can be really good.”