Bengals hit the road to prepare for Vikes
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) -- A 22-mile stretch of interstate became the Cincinnati Bengals' road to the playoffs.
With high winds and no covered practice field, the AFC North leaders had to hurriedly change their practice plans Wednesday for the Minnesota Vikings. They took buses to an indoor soccer complex in a distant suburb.
The lack of an indoor field has been a sore point over the years. Bengals ownership has the right under its stadium lease to cover one of the practice fields next to Paul Brown Stadium, but the team would have to pay the cost. So, there's no covered field.
Instead, the Bengals (9-3) had to pack up their gear, settle into their bus seats and make a 45-minute ride north, throwing their day out of whack.
"Definitely," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "It's a pain. It's a drag. But it is what it is. Just sitting on the freeway for 45 minutes or an hour -- we actually sat on the buses for a couple of hours one year because of the snow. It's the situation we're in."
In many ways, they're in a very good situation.
A win at Minnesota on Sunday would secure the division title. They also would clinch if they lose and Baltimore and Pittsburgh lose as well. The Bengals have a three-game lead with four to play, and own the tiebreaker against both teams.
It would be only Cincinnati's second playoff berth in 19 years. They also won the division in 2005 and lost to Pittsburgh in the first playoff game.
With so much at stake this weekend, it would have been beneficial to adhere to their practice routine. Ordinarily, the Bengals would have worked out on their adjacent grass fields or on Paul Brown Stadium's artificial turf. Winds approaching 50 mph and a threat of rain prompted coach Marvin Lewis to scramble Wednesday morning to find an indoor place.
"I wish we didn't have to do it," Lewis said. "So we'll do it and just get up and go."
The Bengals practiced on a covered field at Wall2Wall Soccer in suburban Mason, which dubs itself "Ohio's Finest Soccer Facility." The complex currently is signing up teams for the Queen City Flag Football League, at $450 per team.
The ride on Wednesday went better than some in the past. In December 2004, a storm dumped eight inches of snow on the region and prompted the Bengals to board buses for a practice at the soccer complex. Traffic on Interstate 71 was gridlocked, making for that long commute that Palmer mentioned.
Lewis hoped that ownership would build a covered practice field, but he's made no headway. The University of Cincinnati plans to build a covered field next year, part of its effort to try to keep football coach Brian Kelly. The school had approached the Bengals about a joint venture, but couldn't come to an agreement.
Palmer said players figure they'll never get their own covered field.
"I think everyone in the locker room understands our situation, and you have to find a way to deal with it," Palmer said.
They've been looking forward to this game for a long time. After making it through a stretch of three games against struggling teams -- Oakland, Cleveland and Detroit -- the Bengals get to play first-place teams back-to-back. After Minnesota (10-2), they play at San Diego (9-3) in a game that will go a long way in determining home-field advantage. The Bengals and Chargers are tied for second-best record in the AFC.
As a first step, they can clinch the division title in Minnesota.
"There's definitely a lot on the line," safety Chris Crocker said. "We want to win this game because this gets us in. This is a big game, a big challenge for us. To get into the playoffs -- that was a goal. And it's right here."
The Bengals moved into position to clinch after Baltimore lost on Monday night. Some players weren't aware that they were one win away from the division title.
"I didn't really realize it until you said it right now," Palmer said. "I don't know if guys in our locker room realize it. All we're focused on is trying to beat a good team, and going into a good team's stadium and coming together and playing in a playoff-like atmosphere."
Lewis told his players on Wednesday morning -- before the unexpected bus ride -- that they need to be looking at the big picture.
"It (the division title) has been mentioned one time, but it hasn't been the focal point," receiver Chad Ochocinco said. "Coach Lewis just stressed how important this game is for us winning as far as having our own destiny in our hands."