Winning three games used to be somewhat of an accomplishment, a feat in Cincinnati that equated to showing things with the Bengals had not reached a state of rigor mortis. Now, after winning three of their first four games -- all in dramatic fashion -- the Bengals seem to be taking winning seriously.
More importantly, they are being taken seriously.
They've knocked off Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Cleveland and came within an incredible, last-second play of beating the Denver Broncos, who, at 4-0, are arguably the NFL's biggest surprise outside of Cincinnati. The Bengals actually enter Sunday's game at Baltimore tied with the Ravens for the AFC North lead. They are running the ball, passing it, and playing a physical style of defense that legitimizes their inclusion in this teeth-jarring division.
They also are playing until the final whistle, winning -- and losing -- in cardiac fashion. They've played from behind in every contest and, for the most part, managed to overcome momentum swings to rebound. Bad teams don't do that, even early in the season when so much is undecided.
The potential for a falloff seems to always be one trap door away for a franchise that has been the NFL equivalent of the NBA's L.A. Clippers. Yet, the return of quarterback Carson Palmer, the guile of their head coach, and the commitment, risk and luck of ownership to acquire and stick with arguably the biggest assemblage of castoff, red-flagged talent in the NFL has paid enough early dividends for a broken-hearted fan base to re-invest its faith.
Think about it. When HBO chose the Bengals for its "Hard Knocks" documentary series in training camp, there was a boat-crash curiosity about seeing how this seemingly rudderless organization was run. It would be more of a comedy, a Chad Ochocinco-does-Dave-Chappelle variety hour. They fooled us. The show and its characters were entertaining, but the Bengals looked like a real football team.
Lewis has broken through by barely recognizing Ochocinco's ego but not caging his persona. Palmer, since the summer, has talked up players like wide receiver Chris Henry, who had previously acted the part of a fool. Running back Cedric Benson, who Chicago gave up on after several off-the-field incidents, is rarely heard from. But man, is he ever being seen and his production felt.
While Lewis said he won't discuss some of the measures he and his staff have used to turn down the volume on Ochocinco and turn up the intensity of cast-away players like Benson, Tank Johnson, Chris Crocker, Roy Williams, Laveranues Coles and Brian Leonard, it's not hard to see. He's ignored the foot-stomping, breath-holding and minicamp all-pro performances, and has made everyone play up to a certain standard. He and his staff have made a group of high-risk, high-reward players realize that the reward is far more fruitful than a lost gamble.
Rookie middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, a projected top 15 pick who slipped into the second round because of some off-field concerns and lack of scheme discipline, has turned into a menacing force. Being stiff-armed by 32 teams one time around and a few more the second time sharpened his edge (19 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles).
Benson, a player who supposedly cared more about the football lifestyle than football itself, is the NFL's fourth-leading rusher (367 yards, two touchdowns). A carefully crafted and efficiently executed zone-blocking scheme has served a once-questioned offensive line and the running backs well.
Coles, a supposed malcontent while with the Jets, has been as solid of a professional (10 catches, 78 yards, one touchdown) as the Bengals could have hoped for after the free-agency departure of standout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Defensive end Antwan Odom has overcome injuries that plagued him last season, added 30 pounds, and is tied for the NFL lead in sacks with eight.
Selflessness has been established with the Who Deys, but is it strong enough to withstand any wayward strolls back to the way things were?
"We have our moments," Lewis said. "But there was a dedication throughout the building this offseason to make the changes we needed and to get everybody doing things the right way."
That wasn't as hard as it might seem. Players did not appreciate being a punchline last season and reminders of that still permeate the team's psyche. That they managed to live through the clowning of colleagues and critics and press on through all of the off-field issues has formed a resilience that's been evident in the late comebacks and poise under pressure this season.
Lewis realizes as well as anybody that the taste of success could turn into an excess of misguided optimism and lost reality, and apparently so do the players.
"There's probably a little luck there because (the Bengals) could just as well be 0-4," an NFL assistant coach said. "The guys are pretty resilient."
Though Lewis didn't sense things slipping, to keep players in check he made them wear nameless and numberless practice jerseys last week leading into the overtime victory over Cleveland. As much as it was to make players realize that no one was above the team, it was a move also made to make some insecure players feel that they, too, belonged.
"It was a thing that we need to be selfless and doesn't matter what number you are and what your name is," Lewis said. "Play football. We knew we'd be down some guys injury-wise and the new guys had to step up and play."
The biggest reason why Cincinnati is back, though, is the return of a healthy Palmer. Though he's not exactly lighting it up (79-of-137 for 845 yards, six TDs and five INTs), his presence has formed a sense of confidence throughout the roster. When he missed 12 games last season with an elbow injury, that confidence barely existed -- throughout the entire organization even.
"It makes a pretty big difference him being back," Lewis said. "As a team, we didn't adjust well to him being injured. We didn't put ourselves in position to win games, and we didn't have people step up on offense. Now with him back, we have more players stepping up and playing like we need to play."
Sunday's game against the Ravens, the organization where Lewis established himself as a defensive coach, is being viewed by folks within the organization as a barometer of how good the Bengals might really be. Baltimore waxed them at the end of last season, and it is coming off a tough loss to New England. The Bengals aren't fretting or thinking of a million new schemes to figure out some way to survive.
They think they can do what they've done, play how they've played and gain sole possession of the division lead.
They're beyond the giddiness stage.
"We didn't like how things went last year, and the players dedicated themselves to being better," Lewis said. "It's a no-nonsense group. We haven't been able to get ahead and put things away, but we have kept playing and we expect to make plays.
"We expect to win."