CINCINNATI -- The Bengals haven’t dodged the issue all year. They’ve embraced it, in fact. Through the fast start, right up to the franchise-best-equaling 12th win, they said it often:
It all means nothing if they don’t win in the postseason.
The hallmark of the Andy Dalton era has been regular-season success followed by a first-game exit in the postseason. Dalton is 50-26 in the regular season and 0-4 in the postseason. Coach Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in the postseason.
If the Bengals are going to break that pattern Saturday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are going to do it without Dalton. The club prepared AJ McCarron to start, even after Dalton had the cast on his fractured right thumb removed Monday. Dalton didn't practice, and Friday he was ruled out. Keith Wenning, just called up from the practice squad, will be the backup.
Before the Dalton injury, the Bengals seemed to be in a great position to end the postseason drought. Dalton was having his best year. He finished second in quarterback rating. The defense was arguably the best in team history. The roster is as deep and talented as any in the NFL.
Losing Dalton was a huge blow, but the club has remained confident and upbeat under McCarrron. The only loss in his three starts was on the road to the AFC's No. 1 seed Denver in overtime.
The Bengals continue to look ahead, not at past failures.
“This is the playoffs,” wide receiver Marvin Jones said. “Everyone has zero wins. We’ve got to go out and do what we do. The past is the past.”
While the Bengals are constantly reminded of the playoff woes and struggles against the Steelers (3-12 at Paul Brown Stadium), they have to concentrate on the task in front of them.
“It’s just another game,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “Another game we’ve got to win. A playoff game. At the end of day, we’ve got to overcome somehow. I feel like it’s a great opportunity for us to take that next leap. It’s time.”
It’s been a long time since the Bengals took that leap. Kirkpatrick was 2 1/2 months old the last time the Bengals won a playoff game. It was following the 1990 season when Boomer Esiason led them to a 41-14 win over the Houston Oilers on Jan. 6, 1991.
Here’s the postseason history under Lewis:
2005 season, 31-17 loss to the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium
What happened: Carson Palmer and Chris Henry both got hurt on the second offensive play of the game. Jon Kitna took over and led the Bengals to a 17-14 lead at half. But the Steelers outscored the Bengals 17-0 in the second half and went on to win the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed.
2009 season, 24-14 loss to the New York Jets at Paul Brown
What happened: The Bengals led early 7-0. But mistakes cost them. A Palmer interception, a lost Cedric Benson fumble and two short field goal misses were the difference in the game.
2011 season, 31-10 loss to the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium
What happened: The game turned when J.J. Watt intercepted a Dalton pass with 52 seconds left in the first half and returned it 29 yards for a TD. That gave Houston a 17-10 lead. The Texans dominated the second half. Dalton threw three picks in the game.
2012 season, 19-13 loss to the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium
What happened: This one was not as close as the score. The Texans out-gained the Bengals 420-198. Dalton was 14-for-30 for 127 yards and an interception.
2013 season, 27-10 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Paul Brown
What happened: Turnovers killed the Bengals in this one. Dalton was picked off twice and lost a fumble to account for three of the Bengals’ four giveaways. The Chargers did not turn the ball over. That made up for the 439-318 yardage advantage by the Bengals. The Bengals led 10-7 at half, but the Chargers went on an 80-yard drive to start the second half.
2014 season, 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium
What happened: A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and Jermaine Gresham all missed the game. Andrew Luck threw for 376 yards. It was a game at halftime. The Colts led 13-10. But the Bengals only managed 98 yards in their second half.
A lot of the players answering questions about the playoff cloud hanging over the franchise were not around for most of the playoff failures. No one on the roster was on the 2005 team.
“If you look around, there’s 20 new guys from a year ago, 40 new guys from two years ago,” Lewis said. “I don’t think there’s any here-you-go-again.”
While most outsiders think just a playoff win would be huge for the franchise, that’s not the case in the locker room.
“We didn’t set out for a playoff win,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We set out to win a Super Bowl. Anything short of that and we’ll be disappointed.”
Whitworth is a 10-year veteran, so he’s been part of all the playoff losses under Lewis except the one in 2005.
“It’s not as much of what we learned from the past experiences,” Whitworth said. “It’s what we learned from this season. I think this football team has been able to rise to the occasion when opportunities have been presented to it. I think we’re excited about the opportunity this week.”
Whitworth downplayed the fact that it’s the Steelers.
“Division, all that is over with,” he said. “Now, it’s 12 football teams looking for one prize. It really doesn’t matter who it is, what division and where they come from. It’s about going out this week and making special plays.”
Other players admitted that playing the Steelers makes a big game even bigger.
“We’re naturally excited,” Jones said. “One, it’s the playoffs. Two, we’re playing the Steelers again. They’re a team in our division. It’s always a big game when we play them.”
“AFC North football game, the playoffs,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “There’s no avoiding the history. It’s AFC North football and you add the playoffs. That’s what you’re going to get Saturday night.”