CINCINNATI -- Chad Johnson softly sat in the locker next to Adam Jones this past Sunday. Head down, he tried to be unobtrusive as his friend juggled putting on shoes with answering reporters' questions. But Johnson, the erstwhile Chad Ochocinco, couldn't keep a teeny smile from flitting across his face.
And when he was very quietly asked what that was about, he equally quietly said, "They were f------ awesome."
Since 2011, the Seahawks have won 45 regular-season games. The Bengals? Forty-five, too. But Cincinnati has zero wins in January -- and February -- and so that's where the perception between the two teams dovetail, one a consecutive Super Bowl winner and runner-up, the other a perennial playoff flameout, not fully loose of that tie to paper bag-wearing fans. And yet, at the risk of a premature anointing (or is the phrase "irrational exuberance"?), these Bengals head into this Sunday's tilt at Buffalo different than the last few years' varietals. Fuller-bodied. More mature. With a much better finish.
"Yeah, this time, we finished," the otherworldly A.J. Green said, in his usual understated way. It was Green who two years ago, in Baltimore, capped another furious, 17-point rally. He caught a 51-yard Hail Mary from Andy Dalton with the clock completely expired, sent the game into overtime ... and then languished as the Bengals lost anyway.
"This time, I knew [Mike] Nugent was going to nail it," Adam Jones said, laughing at himself and grinning straight across the locker room at his placekicker. It was Jones who a year ago, after a game against the Panthers ended in a maddening 37-37 tie -- most obviously because Nugent missed a 36-yard field goal -- masterfully called out the specialist without ever using his name. ("Everybody gets paid to do a job. So perform and do your job," Jones said then.)
Sunday, it was Jones walking up and down the Bengals' sideline in the fourth quarter, telling the defense, "If we do our jobs, if we hold them, we'll win this game." The defense did, the offense came roaring back and Nugent hit two big kicks, a 31-yarder as time expired to tie the game, and a 42-yard game-winner in overtime.
There's a deeper confidence, a stronger certainty, a take-notice way about these Bengals. There's no backing up any buses. No hanging of heads. Just a team of pseudo-Nostradamuses and a quarterback -- who came into last Sunday's game having trailed for less than two minutes all year -- who barked at both his teammates and coordinator that there was a ton of time left.
"It's from how we hold each other accountable now," Green said. "This team has been together for a while. We've been winning for a long time. We better have confidence in each other."
Three years ago, Marvin Lewis opened camp by handing out T-shirts that read "DNO," for Destination: New Orleans, the season's Super Bowl site. Didn't happen. The next year, he laid out flashy goals: going undefeated at home being the first. The Bengals were indeed 8-0 at home that year, and a march to the Super Bowl this time didn't seem out of the realm of possibility. But then they laid a big, round, 51-pass egg against the Chargers in the playoff's opening round, at home. They went away from what was a pounding run game -- former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (now the Redskins head coach) called a game for Dalton more suited to Tom Brady -- and the Bengals never found any footing.
"Coach Lewis keeps telling us, 'We've got experience.' He reminds us, we've been in close games, we've been in big games, we've battled next to each other for a long time and none of this has to be new," said defensive end Michael Johnson, who after a one-year stint in Tampa Bay has returned to once again give the Bengals' front its pair of ravaging long-armed bookends. Geno Atkins is again wholly healthy after destroying his knee in 2013, again one of the toughest nose tackles to block in football. And it was clear that the normally unflappable Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, was flustered on this afternoon by this line of Johnson and Atkins and Domata Peko and Carlos Dunlap.
The talent is here, and has been for some time. Green, the long-legged Marvin Jones and the absurdly athletic and creatively deployed Muhammed Sanu at wide receiver. Tyler Eifert -- who repeatedly exposed Seattle's Kam Chancellor, one of the game's premier safeties -- at tight end, and a two-headed running back tandem in Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill that Seattle end Cliff Avril freely called one of the game's toughest. When Ben Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers might have an offense to match this one, but the Bengals' defense is loaded for bear (and raven and brown and maybe even patriot). After the Bills, Cincinnati has a bye and then heads into Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, potentially sitting at 6-0, poised to maybe sketch too much separation into the division.
More than talent, though, is chemistry, Johnson said. "We're trusting in each other, in the other units, much more."
It was Bernard, who had 80 rushing yards on just 15 carries, saying, "Our defense is scary, huh?"
And it was Peko, the long-haired perpetually merry 300-pounder, flat out giggling as he said, "That was the 'Legion of Boom' and Andy just went down the field, 'Bop. Bop. Bop.' "
There's the rub, too: It's still early, but Dalton makes one think he could manage a 51-pass game far better these days. He has 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions and a 115.6 passer rating that ranks third in the league. He and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson have forged a partnership quarterbacks and coordinators alike pine for. Jackson wants edge; the mild-mannered Dalton gives it to him. Dalton wants faith; Jackson unconditionally bestowed his.
On Sunday, with just under four minutes to play in the fourth and Cincinnati down 10, Dalton had a second-and-goal from the Seahawks' 5. He spread everyone wide, including running back Gio Bernard, he called for one of two slants and then he changed his mind at the snap, lunging, slithering, somehow sneaking 5 yards into the end zone. His teammates exploded, the crowd did, too. And while Dalton's post-touchdown spike was not quite Gronk-esque, the swagger was. It's what Jackson calls "the power of choice." Not a simple audible, not a check, but a power. Because that's what he insists Dalton has.
Chad Johnson was a six-time Pro Bowler and the No. 1 receiver on the Bengals' 40th Anniversary Team. He owns the franchise's records in all things receiving -- and in overall flamboyance. He played on absurdly prolific offenses, alongside another star receiver in T.J. Houshmandzadeh and he's never been accused of shirking the limelight. But on this Sunday, he did. He stayed tucked in the locker, saying this team's light was too bright to have him register a spike anyway.
"We were good," he said of his 2000s Bengals teams. "But they're better. Because they're balanced. They have a great offense and defense."
And then, a little louder this time: "It's f------ awesome."