CINCINNATI -- This is a story of clearly articulated goals.
Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis opened the 2012 campaign with kitschy T-shirts that read "DNO" for Destination: New Orleans. This season, he didn't mess with any odes to the Super Bowl site, simply telling his team he wanted three things:
1) Win the AFC North.
2) Go undefeated at home.
3) Win the Super Bowl.
Two down, one to go.
This is a story of a dominant, dynamic defensive front -- a unit with two absurdly long defensive ends, and a unit that, so far, somehow has survived the loss of its best player, Geno Atkins. The anchor these days is Domata Peko, the tackle who sometimes moonlights as a fullback, the dependably cheery long-haired mammoth who eats space and invites the whole team over postgame every Sunday. The ends are Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, a pair whose wingspan Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe called maddening. One week ago, prior to Baltimore's season finale at Cincinnati, Monroe warned how the pair could be blocked cold and still somehow manage to get their arms around blockers to the quarterback. After last Sunday's game, Ravens QB Joe Flacco can attest.
Atkins, a fourth-round pick in 2010 whom Bill Belichick said would go No. 1 overall if the draft were redone today, tore his ACL in Week 9. Lewis pulled out lists for his team that week, long lists of all the players the last few Super Bowl winners had to put on IR. (The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants were both in the high teens during their respective title runs.) Johnson snapped that week at someone asking about compensating for Atkins: "He's not here, we are and we have to keep moving forward."
They have. To the tune of 103 QB hits (third in the NFL) and 43 sacks (10th).
This is a story of not flinching. It's been Lewis' mantra all year and it's what the Bengals have done. Andy Dalton throws an interception on his first pass last Sunday? Defense allows a yard and the Ravens must settle for a field goal. Dalton throws an interception in his second series? Defense, again, only allows a field goal. Dalton throws another two picks before the day's over? The Bengals still score 34 points, Cincinnati still runs away with the game and nobody ever flinches.
This is a story of equanimity. Dalton is a third-year quarterback with three playoff berths under his belt. And yet, he's always taken heat. Veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth thinks it's because of the stupefying talent around him, second-year wideout Marvin Jones thinks it's because he's so agreeable.
Through it all, Dalton has stayed the same: even-keeled, cool, confident. He has a swagger about him, and at no time in the midst of those four interceptions last Sunday did Whitworth see the 26-year-old shaken. On the season, he's thrown for 4,296 yards and 33 touchdowns, run for another two scores, and yes, given up 20 interceptions. But offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Whitworth both warn that an interception isn't always on the quarterback. And it's notable that Dalton's pass-catchers are almost all first-, second- and third-year guys, too.
This is a story of a second chance. When the 2010 season came to close, Lewis was thought to be on his way out. He'd gone 4-12 and 4-11-1 in two of the previous three seasons, and the locker room was a mess. But the looming lockout made leaving unpalatable. To both sides. And so, after eight years on the job, Lewis got to hit the reset button. He tore down his team and rebuilt it into a new one. And this week, in the wake of one division-mate coach getting fired after one year and another head man further south getting pushed out after two, Lewis got a bit gushy in talking about the opportunity to, as he put it, "start from scratch."
"I got a chance to start over again here, as a new coach. It didn't seem like that, but it was for me," Lewis said Wednesday. "That I could take experiences from the first whatever years it was and now turn those right away. And all of the things that I thought were so then, are so. We don't have to go back on those things anymore. I'm going to keep fighting for what I believe in. We're not going to relent on those things. That's where we are."
This is a story of the Bengals' leadership council. The six captains (Reggie Nelson, Cedric Peerman, Vincent Rey, Dalton, Peko and Whitworth) and two elder statesmen (James Harrison, Chris Crocker) meet with Lewis every Thursday. They tell their coach what worked at practice and what they think is unnecessary; they talk about scheduling and which days to take off. And Lewis listens. Of his eight years in Cincy, Whitworth says this one stands out in terms of Lewis really letting the leadership of his players shine.
This is a story of chemistry, real honest-to-goodness, make-baking-soda-crystals type chemistry. After Sunday's game, Johnson kept saying, in response to any number of questions, "I love playing with these guys." There's a general camaraderie, a genuine like. Michael Boley is in his ninth NFL season. He won a Super Bowl with the 2011 Giants, a group that liked each other, too. Thursday, Boley said he's never been on a team that got along this well, or a team that really and truly never saw positions and never created social delineations between offense and defense like this one.
"It's huge," Whitworth said. "When you're not thinking about yourself out there, when you're not thinking about how much money you make or what your stats are, you're thinking, 'That's my brother out there.' When you're playing for each other, you have something special."
This is a story of continuity, too. The Bengals had 27 free agents, restricted and unrestricted, last offseason. They re-signed 21 of them, plus gave new deals to the not-yet-expired Dunlap and Atkins. Wednesday, Lewis gave kudos to the powers that be: "We signed every player that we wanted back. To that, you have to take your hat off to (ownership). That speaks volumes for what we've done."
Of the 53 men currently active for the San Diego Chargers -- Cincinnati's wild-card opponent -- just six were on the team for its last playoff game, in 2009. The Bengals return 37 players from last year's playoff team, and many of the additions, like Super Bowl winners Boley and Harrison, know the playoff dance.
"I think it helps having a lot of the same guys back from the teams the last couple of years, guys that understand that we've had an opportunity that we haven't taken advantage of," Dalton said. "The staff, the players being the same, we have that extra year of experience, knowing what to expect going in and it's going to help us out."
This is a story of Vontaze Burfict, a can't-miss prep prospect who became a must-miss, overweight and seemingly undisciplined player by the end of his career at Arizona State. Burfict called Lewis on the weekend of the 2012 NFL Draft and begged the coach to take a chance. Lewis signed him as an undrafted free agent, and less than two years later, there are few more productive sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the NFL. He led the league in tackles with 171, he nabbed himself a Pro Bowl invitation and he's a player Lewis calls a leader, comparing the young 'backer to Ray Lewis.
This is a story of James Harrison, the scarily definitive Steeler, the one-time Defensive Player of the Year. After nine seasons in Pittsburgh, he moseyed southwest to Cincinnati this summer, took Burfict under his wing and grabbed a seat on that leadership council. He sings in the locker room. And hugs his teammates. And dances. And just smiles when it's mentioned to him that he seems to be looser in Queen City than he was in Steel City.
This is a story of versatility and the offensive line. Injuries should've ravaged this front, but Whitworth slid from left tackle to left guard, Anthony Collins plugged in at left tackle perfectly and the group has kept Dalton clean. And pushed out a consistent power running game. And been a lot of fun to watch.
This is a story of owner/general manager Mike Brown, who in 2009 chose to trust his coaches and coordinators a little more. They told him what they were looking for in prospects, they talked about meshing personalities -- and draft weekend has a very dissimilar shape these days. Whitworth looked around the locker room last week and said of this team, as compared to the ones early in his tenure here, "It's dynamically different."
This is a story of contracts. Atkins got a mega one, while Dunlap took the one Johnson's camp deemed too small. Johnson ended up with the franchise tag, but Dunlap said no one has ever talked about anyone else's deal, even in a joking way. "There's no jealousy," he said. "It's motivation."
"I don't think I've ever heard anyone say anything about money -- or catches," Whitworth said.
Oh and yes, this is a story of egos -- or lack thereof. The spectacle -- Whitworth's word -- of Chad Ochocinco press gatherings, or Terrell Owens locker rants, are long gone. A.J. Green is a superstar receiver, a big man who runs every route on the route tree, outside and inside. He's fast, he's strong, he has a megawatt smile -- and over and over this year, he's said, "I don't need to be featured." Jones scores four touchdowns in one day, and Green celebrates as if they're his own.
"For the first time, we don't have an individual locker room," Whitworth said. "If there is one thing I'm really proud of in Domata's and my leadership, it's that we have guys whose first priority is winning."
This is a story of faith. Dalton is streaky -- sometimes super, super hot and sometimes painfully cold. Jones was asked how Dalton's teammates can help him this Sunday be the former. Looking confused by the question, the young receiver said, "Andy's going to be awesome. That's it."
And so, this is a story of Marvin Lewis, who this week told his players that the only way to shut up all the chatter about not winning a playoff game is to win a playoff game. Watch Sunday afternoon, through the snow and the sleet, as they face off against the men from San Diego.
You'll see the story of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.