CINCINNATI – The Bengals don’t have a lot of questions going into the this season. The core is back from the team that went 12-4 and won the AFC North.
They’ve got to replace a couple of wide receivers, a safety and a right tackle. That’s about as set as it gets going into the preseason schedule.
So there’s really only one question: Can the Bengals break through and win a playoff game?
The four preseason games, the first of which is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Paul Brown Stadium against Minnesota, don’t matter. The 16 regular-season games matter only in that they’re a means toward getting to the playoffs.
Win in January or the season’s a failure.
That’s a pretty high bar, but from the national perspective, from the casual fan perspective, heck, from my perspective, that’s the only thing the Bengals can do to change their perception. My non-event viewing of ESPN is pretty limited to “Pardon the Interruption.” Any time the Bengals are mentioned, one of the guys will refer to the playoffs failure.
The club accepts that postseason success is the only way to change that.
“The goal never changes,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s win the Super Bowl. Bring home the trophy. Every year, one team gets there and 31 don’t. We did some good things last year, we had some great and exciting moments. But, at the end of the day, we were one of those 31.”
Lewis has been saying similar things since he arrived in Cincinnati 14 years ago. The difference now is the franchise has been transformed into one capable of doing such things. The Bengals are 52-27-1 in the last five years. They’ve made the playoffs in each of those five years. And they’ve lost in the first round of playoffs each of those years.
“It’s got to start to wear on you after a while,” said former Bengal and current radio analyst Dave Lapham. “I know that if I was in all those games, it would have worn on me. When it happened so many times, once a pattern like that starts, you have to be mentally tough to fight through that.”
Last year was particularly disheartening – make that particularly crushing – because the Bengals had the Pittsburgh Steelers beaten before imploding in an 18-16 loss. The monkey had fallen from their collective backs, or so it seemed. Then the Jeremy Hill fumble and the penalties on Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones gave the game to Pittsburgh.
The Bengals have to move on.
“We’re kind of past that,” safety George Iloka said. “You’re excited for the first preseason game. No matter how it ended, you’re always excited for a new year. Nothing from last year plays into this year.”
Again, the Bengals are well-set for this year. They lost wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sano to free agency. But they were complementary pieces; A.J. Green is the star. They had to replace right tackle Andre Smith, but they had first-round draft choice Cedric Ogbuehi to step in. Safety Reggie Nelson is the only other starter not back.
Still, they’ve got a long road to get back to the playoffs.
“Just because you’ve been there five years in a row doesn’t mean you’re going to get there a sixth,” Lapham said. “The whole process that gets you there is a lot of work.
“That’s why it’s so tragic that it ended like that thing ended (last year). Learn from the mistakes you made, the big ones that were made, learn by them. See if you get over the hump this year. That’s the only way you can approach it.”
Lewis has always sold the one-game-at-a-time approach. This year is no different.
“Step by step,” Iloka said. “Follow our goals: Play stout defense, score on offense. Win the division. Make the playoffs. Win the Super Bowl. You start checking things off that list, and hopefully you’ll get to the top.”