The last time the Cincinnati Bengals were seen in a football game that mattered, they were busy coming unglued and fumbling away a playoff game over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cincinnati players and coaches have grown weary of answering questions about the embarrassing meltdown and can finally put the playoff disaster behind them when they open the campaign by visiting the New York Jets on Sunday.
The Bengals are 0-7 in the postseason under coach Marvin Lewis and that drought appeared over when they led the Pittsburgh Steelers and possessed the football in the final minutes. But running back Jeremy Hill fumbled and defenders Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones drew personal-foul penalties to help the Steelers kick a field goal and escape with the win.
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That defeat soured a season in which Cincinnati (12-4) matched the franchise mark for victories. It also furthered its reputation as a team that unravels under pressure.
“We're definitely anxious to get out there and start the new chapter,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “For all of us, it's a new chapter because obviously that last chapter we had, y'all know what happened. Now we want to go out there and start something new, a new story.”
The Jets are trying to end a slide of five consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs. New York went 10-6 in Todd Bowles' first season as coach and the expectation is that the squad is ready to take the next step.
Running back Matt Forte, a longtime standout with the Chicago Bears, was added to spruce up the ground attack and a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense (318.6) figures to be stout.
But the key to continued success is veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Jets engaged in a lengthy offseason contract standoff with the 33-year-old before agreeing to terms with the player who passed for a career-high 3,905 yards and a franchise-record 31 touchdowns last season.
New York owner Woody Johnson strongly feels Fitzpatrick's character and leadership are necessary ingredients.
“I'm not trying to challenge anybody. He knows what's at stake,” Johnson said. “He's a Harvard guy, so he knows how important this year is for him. Every year is important for us. We're happy to have him back. He's fired up. He's going to be good at leading the team. He's a good leader of his guys. I think they respect him.”
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is beloved by his teammates and also motivated to pick up where he left off before a broken right thumb halted his standout 2015 season.
Dalton passed for 3,250 yards and 25 touchdowns and was receiving mention as a possible league MVP before suffering the injury in mid-December.
“I've got a lot of confidence in my ability, in what this offense can do, and the guys around me,” Dalton said. “So there definitely is a carryover. I mean, it was the best season that I've had, so for me it's trying to improve on that.”
Dalton and the Bengals shredded the Jets 49-9 in their last meeting in 2013. Dalton passed for 325 yards and five touchdowns in that affair.
New York's defense is a much different unit now than the one that was bombarded that day.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis is in the second season of his second stint with the team and had five interceptions and four fumble recoveries last season. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson had a career-high 12 sacks last season and linebacker David Harris (108) topped 100 tackles for the seventh straight season. Harris is questionable with a shoulder injury.
The Bengals will be missing Burfict — he's serving a three-game suspension for repeated violations of safety rules — but are always hard to contain up front with Dunlap (franchise-record 13.5 sacks) and Geno Atkins (40 sacks over the past five seasons).
Cincinnati will be without tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle), who scored 13 touchdowns last season.
The contest falls on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, which will only add to the intensity right before kickoff.
“I'll honor 9/11 when I first get there, but once Sunday gets here, all that's out of my mind,” Jones said. “I have a lot of respect and due diligence for everybody that went through it, but come Sunday at 1 o'clock I won't be thinking about 9/11.”