CINCINNATI — The Bengals know their margin of error is gone.
Starting Sunday at Paycor Stadium, the Bengals can’t have an off day or night. If they do, they won’t have the chance to finish the job they came within 90 seconds of finishing last February at SoFi Stadium.
Everything speeds up in the playoffs. Every hit is harder and every decision is bigger. Those teams that can handle the differences and make the transition quickly usually succeed. Those who don’t, they’ll be headed home for the winter.
“I’ve always noticed it. In fact, I used to go down on the sidelines before games when I was in high school and my dad was with the Raiders and the energy just feels so different in the playoffs,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. “I just remember as a 15 year old kid watching the kickoff team run down on the opening kickoff of the playoffs, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow. That’s way different.’ There’s just another level. Because it’s win or go home and the stakes are that much higher.
“There’s another level that football hits when you get to the playoffs. Guys play faster and they play harder than they normally play. It’s just because of the situation. It’s win or go home. There’s another level of football that gets amped up when you get to the playoffs. It’s the best. There’s nothing like it. I think there is a different level of physicality and of all those things that you just said. That’s what makes it great.”
This group of Bengals will try to draw upon last year’s experience against a Ravens team whose culture is already a strong one. But the Bengals have a core that is unified and driven by last year’s near-miss.
“I do believe that’s why you see teams that are consistently in the playoffs know how to handle that well,” Callahan said. “You see teams that are always there play well in those moments because they always understand the difference. And they know what it takes to meet that level of intensity. And teams that have championship DNA, teams that have done it always have an advantage of knowing what’s coming at you. Some of the teams that are there for the first time might get a little bit surprised by it. It’s an advantage to have done it before, there’s no doubt.
After the Super Bowl, Vonn Bell was on the bench staring at the field as the Rams celebrated on the field at SoFi Stadium.
“Really just sitting there in that moment, you never forget the feeling. You think all the sacrifices, all the time, the preparation you’re putting yourself through, the coaches putting themselves through being away from their family, being away from loved ones, and really spending that with you and we didn’t get the job done. We just fought back, like again, just fought back to get to this moment. Really honing in on this moment, really just trying to finish the moment.
“Coaches talked about it in training camp, about maximizing the moment. And that’s what we’re in right now. Just learning that from last year, going through the situation of the playoffs and going to the Super Bowl and really working back to it, it’s a testament to us and a testament to the guys in the locker room, like I said, and really just having that ‘not finished’ mindset and really want guys to keep on going, keep on thriving and really just finish the job.”
"Momentum doesn't hurt… our guys are in a great space right now." Zac Taylor on Bengals 8-game win streak heading into playoffs. pic.twitter.com/YpZ9uVorml
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 9, 2023
What does ‘maximize the moment’ mean to Zac Taylor?
“Don’t let any week slip by. You can’t afford to sleepwalk through a week, especially this back half of the season. We wouldn’t be in the position we are today, winning the division, hosting a home-field playoff game,” Taylor said. “It took all eight of those wins consecutively for us to get here. On Halloween we were 4-4. And for this team to keep focused every single week and maximize every opportunity we got speaks to how special this group is.”
Taylor would like to think last year’s playoff experience could help this bunch. The Bengals front office, led by Duke Tobin, added veterans like Ted Karras and Hayden Hurst and the injured Alex Cappa to a Super Bowl core. Then there are the rookies. Cordell Volson on the offensive line, Dax Hill and Cam Taylor-Britt in the secondary.
“Last year just showed what we were capable of,” Taylor said. “Anytime you get on a run like that and you get to the Super Bowl, you’re sitting in the Super Bowl, where I was like, man, we have the team we always suspected we had. Until you get that, you never really know. So then for this year to have a lot of the same pieces back, added some great pieces as well, certainly guys knew we could make the playoffs, and once you get into the playoffs, you’ve got to be ready to go.
“And so, again, we’re not going to make any predictions about where this will end up, but this is the position we wanted to be in with control of at least one home-field game. That gives you your best chance, and hopefully we take care of business Sunday before we talk about anything that goes beyond that.”
The Bengals have matched their 2015 counterparts for the longest winning streak in team history with eight games. But unlike the ’15 team, this group has strung together their 8-game run at the end of the season. Never has a Bengals team had so much momentum going into the playoffs.
"Don't let any week slip by. You can't afford to sleepwalk." Zac Taylor on Bengals late season urgency carrying into playoffs. pic.twitter.com/uMgvcSx4lq
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 10, 2023
“Momentum doesn’t hurt. I’ll take it when we can get it,” Taylor said. “Last year you could argue whether we had it or not. We were playing really well, then rested a bunch of guys and lost a game and then went to the playoffs. Really hard to say that way. I think your team just has to be ready to get focused on a big game Week 1 of the playoffs. That’s what our guys will do. I think it’s probably more for you guys to decide whether or not that matters. I really don’t know. Our guys are in a great space right now. They’ve got a ton of confidence and very happy they get a home playoff game.”
The Bengals are proceeding with offensive plans for the Ravens and assuming that Max Scharping will be filling in for Alex Cappa at right guard. Cappa had his left ankle rolled up on in the second half of Sunday’s game against the Ravens. Taylor would not speculate on whether Cappa’s injury was season-ending.
“We’ll see. It will be tough this week,” Taylor said. “We’ll get more information on that but it will be tough on him.”
In the age of free agency, few teams get the chance to stay together. This group knows this full well. There are players like Jessie Bates, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple and Germaine Pratt who could be gone next season. This group would like to maximize the opportunity.
“Yeah, for sure. We all know what we signed up for. We all know going into this last year that it was going to be tough,” Bell said. “Like everybody knows, it’s just a business. It’s the business side of things. But we let that take care of itself. But we just want to maximize the moment, really cherish the moment, because you never know what can happen within the year.
“Every room is going to look different across the league. And that’s just the nature of the business. You never know. You always want to go all out for your guys every opportunity that you get, especially with the unique group that we have and let everything else take care of itself.
The Bengals defense has been a turnover machine of late. Last year, turnovers powered the defense on a Super Bowl run. There was the Pratt interception that preserved the win against the Raiders. The Logan Wilson interception that set up the Evan McPherson field goal against the Titans. And the Bates-Bell combination that led to the game-winner in Kansas City. On Sunday, the Bengals created four turnovers in their 27-16 win over the Ravens. So the question is: what’s the next level this Bengals defense can reach?
“Just putting it all together. Four quarters and really just winning situationally and really just want to execute all of those phases,” Bell told me Monday. “I think that’s the direction we want to go, is really about finishing and really just putting all of those together and playing a complete game.
“We just want to keep on striving in that direction, like winning situations. It happens sometimes, a situation may occur where we have to go out there and put a fire out and they just kick a field goal and they had a short field. Sometimes it happens. But sometimes you want to hold them to nothing and why they got down there in that situation. If it was a deep ball, if it was a penalty or whatever the case may have presented itself. Just want to keep striving in the right direction.”
The Bengals worked hard for home field advantage and wanted nothing to do with a coin flip determining the location of their wild card round game with the Ravens. The Bengals were 6-1 this season in The Jungle. The Monday night crowd at Paycor for the Bills was at fever pitch. Sunday night figures to be even more intense.
“Man. Hats off to them. They come in week in and week out, especially home games, away games, always showing their love and support for the team,” Bell said. “And they really get loud for us on defense. We appreciate them. Man, we wouldn’t be nothing without them. We appreciate them and all the support.”