As a horde of media surrounded Andrew Whitworth following the Bengals’ batshit-crazy 27-24 overtime win over the Seahawks on Oct. 11, a startlingly sober reminder of life’s fragility was illustrated on a small towel hanging in the left tackle’s locker stall.
Those five letters and two digits reference Chris Henry, the former Bengals wide receiver who went from embodying everything wrong with the police-blotter-heavy teams of the mid-2000s, to apparently flipping the script on his troubled life, to then tragically passing away 10 days before the 2009 Bengals clinched an unforeseen AFC North title. Two weeks ago, I wrote about how this incarnation of the Bengals felt ‘special’ because of the plays they were making and the breaks happening around them.
Following a stunning comeback over Seattle and a ho-hum, takin’-care-of-business triumph in Buffalo, the Special Bengals are also the Mature Bengals.
If you don’t want to take it from me, take it from defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who said as much after the Seattle win.
“Last year, we did worry about it when things were going bad,” says Gilberry. “This year, we’re not worried about it. Our offense knows we’ve been in all those positions and situations, and we know how to handle them. This is a mature team, and as you can see, mature teams come from behind like that and win with poise. It’s in the books.”
After rallying from down 17 in the fourth quarter opposite the two-time NFC champions—seriously, how the hell did they pull that off?—the feel of the locker room was a blend of glee (but not overly so) and confidence (again, not overly so). The company line was, “We knew we were handing the game away, and while we may not have expected to come back and win, we were not going to panic.”
That stoicism emanated from Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, a duo quickly graduating from the butt of Twitter memes to one of the sport’s power couples.
“If I’m a screaming idiot, then I’ll have 11 screaming idiots out there,” was Lewis’s response to a compliment from a reporter referencing his calm demeanor as the game deviated from Training Day-edgy to dinner-at-your-in-laws tense in the fourth quarter. Dalton served as Lewis’s Poise Man during that stretch of the game, marching up and down the sideline and promising a score to the defense if they could deliver a stop.
Watching the Seahawks assert their will in the second and third quarters, I was reminded of a scene from Black Mass, the new Johnny Depp movie. Early in the film, an inebriated acquaintance of Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger (Depp) challenges Bulger to a fight. Bulger’s retort: “Take your shot but make it your best. ‘Cause I get up, I eat ya.”
In a league populated by self-proclaimed tough guys, the Seahawks are NFL bad asses. Marshawn Lynch. Michael Bennett. Cliff Avril. Bobby Wagner. K.J. Wright. Kam Chancellor. Earl Thomas. All big, bad Bulgers. The Seahawks ate the Bengals in quarters two and three. Then, the Bengals picked themselves up, defied the math, and scored a victory Lewis (almost) admitted his previous teams wouldn’t have come up with.
Reporter: How many teams you’ve coached in the past would have been able to do what your team did today?
Lewis: I don’t want to offend anybody, but these guys are doing what they’re supposed to do, and that’s a good thing.
The Bengals also did what they were supposed to Sunday against the Bills, a decent team starting a backup quarterback: they were ruthlessly effective. The Bengals scored 34 points, converted 7-of-12 third downs, and racked up 355 yards of offense. No turnovers. No sacks allowed.
At this point, we know the Bengals are really, really good. They’re 6-0 for just the third time in franchise history. They own the AFC’s second-best point differential (plus-60). With four night games remaining on the schedule—though the Dec. 20 Sunday night tilt in San Francisco could be flexed to an earlier start—Cincinnati also has a chance to shake its primetime woes prior to embarking on what is now a seemingly-inevitable fifth straight trip to the postseason.
If the Bengals shake their night terrors, they just might go from Special Bengals, to Mature Bengals, to Super Bowl Favorite Bengals.