How many steps can a football team climb in one day?
On what kind of day does a football team reach backward across 15 years of failure to share its best days with the present? How charming is that moment when a loser passes through breaking even to become a winner, culminating a three-year process that once seemed interminable? When does the defense that can't stop the run beat the Pittsburgh Steelers?
We have seen the Bengals win before, but so long ago that it's hard to remember. The Great Paul Brown saw the Bengals in two Super Bowls before he died in 1991. We hadn't seen a winning season since.
The Bengals went to those Super Bowls playing racetrack football. They didn't beat up all comers so much as they outscored and outlasted them. Today we cheer a new variation on the old theme.
The Bengals are winners again, winning they way they used to win when we were used to them as winners.
On the very same day, Dec. 4, the Bengals assured their first winning season in 15 years, all but clinched their first division title in just as long and substantially legitimized themselves by beating a playoff-level football team on the road.
Only one step really matters, a really big step with a few steps leading to it, the Super Bowl, which isn't so far out of reach for the Bengals all of a sudden because they climbed a several steps on Dec. 4, outlasting the Steelers on the road in a 38-31 shoot 'em up. One might describe the outing as "vintage Bengals," except they haven't pulled this off in years. We should instead call it "classic Bengals" because it comes from the past.
Entering the Pittsburgh game, media interviews revealed Bengals players defining the stakes in honest terms, even if sometimes unflattering terms. Carson Palmer told ESPN that the critics were right — the Bengals hadn't really beaten anyone. They needed to beat someone, a specific someone, the Steelers, in Pittsburgh, to take that monkey off their backs. Chad Johnson told ESPN the Bengals needed to win because a loss would make them the "same old Bengals."
Charming. The Bengals didn't approach this game merely as if it would be nice to win. They went in as if they couldn't afford to lose. And given where a loss would put them, they couldn't afford to lose.
A loss would have left them 8-4, needing help to win the AFC North or a wild card spot. Their chances of making the playoffs would have dropped to about 50-50. Today, they're 9-3 with playoff chances nearing 100 percent.
Not to disagree with Johnson, but nobody would have sensibly compared the Bengals with those famously inept outfits of the 1990s even if they had lost. Unlike those teams, this Bengals team always plays a representative football game, win or lose.
Carson Palmer is the precision passer Kenny Anderson or Boomer Esiason. Rudi Johnson is the power runner who used to be Pete Johnson or Icky Woods. Chad Johnson-T.J. Houshmandzadeh used to be Isaac Curtis-Cris Collinsworth or Tim McGee-Eddie Brown. We won't call anyone Anthony Munoz, but you don't run downhill and throw deep without the offensive line. Those characteristics of past Bengals Super Bowl teams from 1981 and 1988 are back with us today.
Defensively, the best Bengals teams have never dominated in front, but they made big plays in the back. Not unlike today. Deltha O'Neal and Tory James are Ken Riley and Louis Breeden on the corners. Linebackers Odell Thurman, Brian Simmons and, lately, David Pollack are Jim LeClair and Reggie Williams.
As always, comparisons are a little overdrawn, but just a little. The 1981 and 1988 Bengals, after all, were Super Bowl teams, and today's Bengals aren't. Yet. The Super Bowl teams of the '80s played a lot more with two running backs instead of one, and they lined up defensively in 3-4 instead of 4-3.
Of the two Super Bowl teams, this year's outfit compares most evenly with the 1981 team because the '88 Bengals featured two dimensions the 2005 and 1981 Bengals couldn't duplicate. In addition to the power running game, the full-range passing attack and the defensive back half that bailed itself out with big plays, the '88 Bengals included a true creature nose tackle in Tim Krumrie and a consistent threat to turn the corner in running back James Brooks.
Laugh if you will, but remember that today's Super Bowl contender is much less of a surprise than the two teams that became Super Bowl participants. This year's team comes off two straight 8-8 seasons. The '81 Bengals followed seasons of 4-12 and 6-10, while the '88 Bengals followed a 4-11 season.
Twice in the last 30 years, the Bengals have won divisions with double-digit victories. They became Super Bowl teams. Today's Bengals become division champs with double-digit wins if they beat Cleveland Sunday and win another one later.
The Bengals are playing to their strengths, working around their flaws, finally leaving the Steelers beaten after leaving the Indianapolis Colts breathless. They're in the conversation for this year and for their history. We know now that they belong on the field with anyone, and that includes the Super Bowl field, Ford Field in Detroit, the town where the Bengals made their Super Bowl debut with that '81 team so much like the Bengals of today.
Between now and then, three substantial hurdles remain. First, they're in a contest, probably with Denver, for the second seed in the AFC playoffs. At stake is a first-round bye and the home field until the AFC Championship Game likely to be played in Indianapolis. Best regular season record wins the seed. Both the Bengals and Broncos are 9-3.
Whether or not the Bengals beat the Broncos in the tiebreakers, they still face the next hurdle, beating the Broncos on whichever field once the playoffs begin. Following the Broncos, likely, is a third hurdle, the Colts.
But the Bengals have climbed a lot of humps this year, many of them in one haul Sunday in Pittsburgh. At the top of the mountain is a future within view of their Super Bowl past. It's a long way to the top, but the Bengals have already come a long way.