The Cincinnati Bengals will wake up early this morning in their downtown hotel rooms and climb aboard a pair of buses that will carry them two-thirds of a mile to Paul Brown Stadium for the final three-minute leg of what has been a 365-day pursuit.
The trek, which officially ends at 1:05 this afternoon when the Bengals (11-5) face San Diego (9-7) in an AFC Wild-Card playoff game, began exactly one year ago today in Houston after yet another promising season disintegrated into disappointment with a 19-13 first-round loss to the Texans.
The mood inside the Reliant Stadium visitors locker room following a third first-round exit in four years was equal parts regret and resolve.
“We left a lot out there,” Bengals center Kyle Cook said. “We all would have liked to go back and do things differently. I think that taste has been in our mouths this whole year. We expected to be here right now.”
Most playoff teams do. Washington thought it would build on a 10-win playoff season and instead went 3-13. The Atlanta Falcons could not have expected to go from the NFC Championship Game to 4-12. And those same Houston Texans who beat the Bengals in the playoffs two years in a row never could have imagined their next step would be a 2-14 nightmare.
But Cincinnati stayed on course by, well, staying the course.
In his first press conference after the loss in Houston, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said the focus of the offseason would be to re-sign their own key players rather than looking for quick fixes in free agency. And that continuity of the roster led to the consistency of results even when key players such as Leon Hall and Geno Atkins suffered season-ending injuries, because their replacements were familiar with the system, the coaches and the expectations.
“To me, probably the most frustrating part of the game is how many CEOs and owners that run it like it’s Best Buy, and you can just change the prices and you’re going to be good,” Bengals guard Andrew Whitworth said. “That’s not what it is. It’s NFL football. It takes grown men all playing together in one accord, arm in arm, to be successful, and that takes time.”
And the time is now. A year’s worth of studying, sweating and succeeding ultimately will be judged by what the Bengals do in a three-hour span this afternoon against the Chargers.
“It’s a matter of understanding you’ve prepared to do this, you’ve been put into position to do this, you have the confidence to do this – let’s go do it,” Lewis said.
Everything is aligned for the Bengals to end their 23-year drought without a postseason victory. They are at home, where they are 8-0. They beat the Chargers in San Diego only a few weeks ago. They are seven-point favorites, the largest spread of any of the first-round games. The forecast of a rain/snow mix and temperatures in the low 30s is foreign to San Diego. And the lessons from losses in Januarys past are still fresh in their minds.
“Guys understand that we’ve had an opportunity that we haven’t taken advantage of,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “I think all that is going to help us going in this year. The staff, the players being the same, we have that extra year of experience, knowing what to expect going in, and it’s going to help us out.”
Like mile markers on their yearlong journey from Houston to today, reminders of past postseason failures have consistently flashed before them. And there’s only one way to make them stop.
“We’ve just got to go play,” Lewis said. “We’re not going to get any of you to shut up about it until we win. That’s the way it is and I told them that, flatly, okay? That’s the way it is.”
San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5), 1 p.m., Ch. 7, 12, 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM