Bengals' emotional journey continues in Saturday's playoff opener

Cincinnati will get another crack at Brad Smith, right, and the New York Jets who trounced the Bengals in Sunday's regular season finale.
Cincinnati will get another crack at Brad Smith, right, and the New York Jets who trounced the Bengals in Sunday's regular season finale. (Bill Kostroun/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

Marvin Lewis walked through the tiny visitors' locker room at Giants Stadium late last Sunday night as his Cincinnati Bengals players hurriedly got dressed and packed their belongings for the trip home following a lopsided loss to the New York Jets to end the NFL's regular season.

The Bengals coach expressed his disappointment in his team's performance when he had spoken to reporters a few minutes earlier. But if he was angry, it didn't show. Lewis stopped by Chad Ochocinco's locker for a brief chat after the wide receiver motioned him over. Then, as he made his way toward the coaches' dressing area, he paused momentarily when he was asked about the possibility that his players might be emotionally drained even as the playoffs, and the biggest games of their season, neared.

"I feel extremely confident we'll be able to charge up everyone's emotional tank and get guys ready to go this week," Lewis said. "That's what I'm excited about. They generally make me proud. I think we'll be able to see that happen this week."

It has been, in some ways, the most rewarding of seasons for the Bengals and Lewis, their seventh-year head coach who formerly was the Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens and also had a one-year stint running the Washington Redskins' defense in 2002.

The Bengals went 10-6 to secure their second winning season and second division title under Lewis. They beat the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers twice each en route to the AFC North crown, and they're headed to the playoffs for just the second time in the past 19 seasons. They'll be seeking the franchise's first postseason triumph since Jan. 6, 1991, when they host the Jets on Saturday in a first-round AFC playoff game just six days after that listless, 37-0 defeat at Giants Stadium.

But even with that on-field success, it has been, in other ways, the most trying of seasons for Lewis and his players. They're still grieving over the death last month of wide receiver Chris Henry, who was injured in a fall from the back of a pickup truck being driven by his fiancee in Charlotte and died the following morning. Police announced this week that Loleini Tonga, Henry's fiancee, would not face criminal charges because there was no evidence she was driving the truck recklessly or at an excessive speed. Police have called the events that led to Henry's death a domestic situation.

Those in the Bengals organization took Henry's death hard. He had been a troubled player who had endured a series of arrests and suspensions by the NFL, but the Bengals described him as someone who had turned around his life. Owner Mike Brown gave him a second chance with the team, re-signing Henry after he had been released. Henry was in Charlotte, where Tonga's parents have a home because he was on the season-ending injured reserve list. Ochocinco became tearful when speaking to reporters on the day Henry died. The Bengals attended Henry's funeral in Louisiana.

It wasn't the first time that tragedy had struck the team this season. Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, died in October. Zimmer, accompanied by family members on the Bengals' trip to Baltimore, coached a game against the Ravens three days later.

The Bengals have been resilient, securing the AFC's fourth playoff seed without having a player selected to the Pro Bowl. According to the team, citing research by the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time since the 1970 merger that a division-winning club had no players named to the Pro Bowl. Now Lewis must pull things together once more and get the Bengals to rebound from their dreadful performance on that miserably chilly and windy night that was the last game at Giants Stadium.

"We get an opportunity to right the wrong right away," Lewis said.

Ochocinco was similarly confident that the Bengals would rebound and play well in the rematch.

"We'll be fine," he said in the locker room late Sunday night. "We've got plenty of time. We'll get it fixed. . . . I don't think it matters [to lose by such a margin in the final regular season game]. We have the film. We can break down the tape. There's not much more they can do different. We'll be fine. We just have to fix what we didn't do."

Even the Jets seemed to sense that they would face a different Bengals team this weekend.

"It's zero-zero," veteran guard Alan Faneca said. "No matter what the score was, it's zero-zero next time, and we both start over."

Said Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis: "They're gonna look at this film. We're probably not gonna see the same offense we saw in this game. They run the ball well. When [tailback Cedric] Benson gets in there, I'm sure they're gonna try to pound the ball with the running game."

The Bengals had Benson on their inactive list for last Sunday's game. But Lewis kept his quarterback, Carson Palmer, in the game into the third quarter, even with the Bengals already playoff-bound and playing only for postseason seeding. Palmer completed only 1 of 11 passes for zero yards, and the Bengals did next to nothing on offense.

Ochocinco suffered a bruised knee on a fall during pregame warmups and had a no-catch first half before sitting out the second half. He underwent an MRI exam this week, but Lewis said at a news conference that Ochocinco only "got his ego bruised" and had "Twittered all over America" that he's fine and ready to play this weekend. Lewis's message seemed clear: There are no excuses in this game.

"It's the playoffs," Jets linebacker Calvin Pace said. "That game's gonna be in their heads. But it's another whole level now."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company