For a summer in college I interned for the sports department of the Columbus Dispatch, which sent me for a few days to cover Cincinnati Bengals training camp. The 1990s had just come to a close—a dismal era even by the Bengals' standards—and the beat writers killed time during practice by stumping one another with trivia of the damned. How many 12-loss seasons did the Bengals have in the '90s? (That would be five.) How long since they had a winning season? (At the time, fully 10 years.) Among this crowd, dumping on the team was a form of reminiscing, a gallows humor for reporters who'd been held captive (working weekends, skipping holidays, missing wives and kids) by a team that was stuck in second gear for an entire decade. Unspoken was another stumper question: Can you believe we spent our lives covering this farce?
They knew nothing was likely to change during the upcoming season. Sure enough, the Bengals went 4-12 in 2000. But the aughts eventually were kinder to Cincinnati. The Bengals won 68 games in the decade, up from 52 in the '90s. And the Marvin Lewis era, now in its 10th season, if you can believe it, has seen something approaching respectability: 79 wins, with a pair of division titles and four playoff appearances. One of those will be Saturday afternoon. If it turns out to be Lewis' 80th win with the Bengals, it will be borderline historic.
The Bengals will play in Houston, where they lost last year, 31-10. That was Cincy's fourth straight playoff loss. Other teams incur streaks like that across only five or six years. It has taken the Bengals twenty-three years to pile up four measly playoff losses. That's a mere 8,400 days, a near-tragic total. Think of the hundreds and hundreds of Bengals fans who have died in the past quarter-century just waiting for a return to the glorious feeling of beating the Houston Oilers on Wild Card Sunday, 1990. Boomer Esiason threw for 150 yards and rushed for 57 more; he and Harold Green and Ickey Woods and Eric Ball and Eric Kattus all scored touchdowns, and the Bengals stomped the veritable dogshit out of the Oilers that day, 41-14.
Cincy lost the next week to the Raiders, who were then in Los Angeles, just to reiterate how long ago we're talking; Marcus Allen ran for 140 yards and Bo Jackson for 77 (on six carries) on the way to a 20-10 Raiders win. But because the Bengals are the Bengals, they were also dealing with a couple of off-the-field issues. Their defensive back Lewis Billups had just been arrested on weapons charges, and that week Penthouse ran a report saying that Stanley Wilson, the former Cincinnati running back who missed the previous year's Super Bowl because of a cocaine suspension, had actually gotten high with three Bengals teammates before that game. The story included Wilson calling himself the "most chemically dependent person there is. You could drop me by parachute anywhere in Los Angeles and I could find coke in 15 minutes." That his former team was then preparing for a playoff game in that selfsame city of angels could not have helped the Bengals' concentration that week.
Today Vegas expects the Texans to beat the Bengals by a score of about 24-20. There are 8,400 reasons (and counting) why that's likely to happen. But at least consider this: The Bengals in the second half of the season have steadfastly not sucked. Their only loss in the past eight games was by a single point to Dallas. Football Outsiders counts the Bengals as almost twice as likely (17.9 percent to 9.3 percent) as the Texans to reach the AFC Championship. Josh Kirkendall at Cincy Jungle broke down the matchups to watch in the game and concluded that "the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals are two of the more similar teams in the NFL this year." Cincinnati Bengals, single-game contenders. More incredible things have happened, albeit usually at the Bengals' expense.