Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The bar has been raised ... Bengals head to Cleveland

There’s a popular coaching cliché which tells us no team is as good as people think or as bad as people think.

The Bengals surrender themselves to the court of public opinion at 1 p.m. Sunday when they play their season-opener against the Browns in Cleveland.

How big is this game?

If the Bengals win, they’ll return home to begin a stretch of three games against the Vikings, Bears and Texans; teams which combined for just 20 wins last season.

Visions of a 4-0 start will be dancing in the Bengals’ heads. Teams who begin the season 4-0 typically reach the playoffs, a plateau not achieved by the Bengals since 1990.

Even 2-2 would be an improvement after consecutive 1-4 starts which inevitably prevented the Bengals from extending their season beyond the first week of January for the first time in 14 years.

Lose to the Browns, and they’ll be serenaded with a chorus of that unpopular tune, “Same Old Bengals” cascading throughout the Lake Erie waterfront.

The Browns are out to prove they’re better than last year’s 4-12 club.

The Bengals are looking to escape the bounds of mediocrity following back-to-back 8-8 campaigns.

The Browns have won 5 of the last 7 meetings. And, let’s face it, neither team or city cares too much for the other.

“(The Browns) are going to try to win the football game,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. “People come hard after you every week, but there will be some excitement when we go to Cleveland.”

It’s easy to say the preseason doesn’t matter, especially when your team has played as inconsistently as the Bengals have this summer. They appeared to have hit rock bottom in a 27-17 loss to the defending NFC champion Eagles in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Lewis kept hammering home this point:

“What you did in ’03 and ’04 doesn’t matter,” he said. “This is a new year. The bar has been raised.”

The entire preseason regime beginning with ‘Camp Marvin’ at Georgetown College has been geared to preparing the team for a fast start. While ESPN pundits were singing the Bengals’ praises and fans were gobbling up season ticket packages at a record pace, Lewis struggled to put the blinders on his players.

“You guys (the media) have beat them into a frenzy,” he said. “They think they’re pretty good. What have we done? We haven’t done anything. We’re not here to be average. There’s a certain sense of urgency now of things that need to be done.”

Much of the optimism stems from the off-season retention of Rudi Johnson, who rushed for 1,454 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and the continued maturation of QB Carson Palmer.

The Bengals have one of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL led by the flamboyant and quotable Chad Johnson and his Oregon State University pal T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Top draft choice, defensive end David Pollack, who signed after a lengthy holdout, should help anchor an improved defense.

But, honestly, much of the excitement surrounding the Bengals this summer is that they’ve been on the brink of the playoffs in each of Lewis’ first two seasons as head coach. The Bengals won 6 of their last 9 games last season.

Lewis has tried to shield his team from the hype. In a sense, he seemed oddly pleased with his team’s poor play during the preseason giving him more ammo for what many players considered the toughest preseason practices in the NFL.

“I’m never happy,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a wake up call, but you have to be consistent when you play good football teams. We need a consistent level of execution in all three phases. That’s what we’re not very good at. We need to coach harder and work harder every day.”

The Bengals won’t be taken lightly by opponents this season. Considering their recent history, rivals also won’t be losing any sleep playing them either.

“The AFC North teams have gotten better,” said Lewis. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. They haven’t been staying up at night worrying about us.”

At approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, Bengals fans will know whether they should begin to worry.

“From what everybody tells me, I guess this year is supposed to be pivotal,” Lewis said. “Every year is pivotal. Getting back to mediocrity has not gone to our heads. We all want to go to Detroit.”

Detroit’s Ford Field is the site of Super Bowl XL.

Browns Stadium should be the only NFL venue on the Bengals’ minds this week.

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