We knew it would be different when they wrapped up Carson Palmer as the top selection before the 2003 draft and announced he would sit on the bench for a year. Nothing dogged the Bengals quite like their wipeouts at quarterback, and here was a commitment to taking it slow.
Palmer is finishing his second true season as RoboQuarterback, almost as if hatched in a science lab, playing cold-blooded football with cutting efficiency. Not perfect. Just cutting.
Twice this season, Palmer has played a bad game. Week 7 against Pittsburgh, he completed 21 of 36 for 227 yards with two picks and no touchdowns. Then he came back with five straight games rating 100 or higher, ending with a 38-31 win at Pittsburgh on Dec. 4.
The other bad game was Dec. 11 against Cleveland, completing only 13 of 27 passes. A little letdown, perhaps, after the huge win in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals went Dec. 18 to Ford Field in Detroit, site of the next Super Bowl, assigned to take out the listless Detroit Lions and clinch the AFC North. Teams lose games like this. The Bengals almost lost a game like it a week earlier.
But Palmer didn't allow the question to linger for a moment. After the Bengals turned Detroit's fumbled kickoff into a field goal, he completed nine of 11 for 101 yards and two touchdowns before the first quarter ended. From that point, the Bengals were just keeping their foot down until finishing with a 41-17 victory.
For all that's to be said for Palmer's physical ability, his best gift to this team is an even keel. A bad game never becomes another bad game. It's more likely to become five good games.
Now that Peyton Manning has lost a game, people begin to see Palmer as an MVP candidate. Once the franchise that mangled young quarterbacks, the Bengals suddenly have developed an MVP quarterback in three years. He now owns the franchise record with 30 touchdown passes this season. Are you believing this?
The Bengals used to lose a lot of games with a fellow named Corey Dillon at running back. Not his fault — he carried for 1,000 yards every year. In 2003, Dillon slowed down with a groin strain and a hyper-extended knee, then the Bengals won two of three without him.
So Dillon started complaining just when Bengals fans were beginning to feel good, and when he couldn't make it one Sunday morning the Bengals fans came out in force for Roo-Dee. Fans wore Dillon jerseys with his name crossed off.
A cleansing happened that day. Rudi Johnson ran 101 yards on 27 carries and the Bengals beat Seattle. The Bengals were really moving on. After the season, they traded Dillon to New England and gave the ball to Johnson.
Johnson ran for 1,454 yards last year. When the season ended and his contract came up, some of us thought the Bengals might as well let Johnson go and spend elsewhere, figuring you can always find a running back. Heck, in the Bengals' worst years they could find running backs.
Instead, the Bengals tagged Johnson as their franchise player and signed him for a year at $6.3 million. On March 15, the Bengals gave Johnson the five-year, $26 million contract they once gave Corey Dillon, just in time to maintain their franchise-tagging prerogative for the next couple years.
On Dec. 18, Johnson carried the ball and Detroit defenders slid and bounced off him like children playing with their uncle. We don't know what another back would have done. We know Johnson ran for 117 yards in Detroit when the Bengals needed a win to wrap up their first division title in 15 years.
So now they've won a division. It still hasn't sunk in. It almost seems to have happened too quickly — a Bengals team has exceeded expectations.
Start of the year, we figured the Bengals would take five of six against weak competition, maybe split their way through a tough six-game stretch in the middle and enter the final four weeks in the thick of a wild card hunt. (See "In NFL, Bengals Could Be Winners," issue of Sept. 7-13.)
All that changed Dec. 4. If the Steelers protect their home field and send the Bengals out with a loss, then the Bengals are 3-3 in the middle six and 8-4 overall and fighting for a wild card spot. Instead, Palmer threw three touchdowns and no picks while the defense forced four turnovers. Two weeks later, the Bengals clinched their first division in 15 years.
Yes, the Bengals have played a weak schedule and their defense might not be ready to win a playoff game, but they've won all the easy games on their easy schedule and a lot of teams don't. Not yet this season have they gone to a game without being ready, factoring in that they were just good enough on Dec. 11 against the Browns.
The Bengals are ahead of the Steelers because they were ready for the Baltimore Ravens twice and the Steelers were ready just once. The reason the Bengals are ahead of teams like Kansas City and San Diego is because those guys are playing the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts, then losing to Miami. The Bengals are playing Cleveland and Detroit and beating them.
Don't knock it. The Bengals have failed against easy schedules before. But that's not their way anymore. Since Marvin Lewis showed up three years ago, the Bengals develop a quarterback, replace their biggest star with someone just as good, beat teams they're supposed to beat and win a division. We'll take it.