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Bengals trying to become elite team in AFC

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 10:24 p.m.

CINCINNATI — Three years ago, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis appeared headed for the unemployment line as the Bengals were engrossed in a plethora of sometimes-inexplicable problems and distractions that made them one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NFL.

The Bengals were losing player after player for any number of reasons. Some were entangled in legal predicaments, while others suffered season-ending injuries that turned up the heat on an embattled Lewis who was perched on the hot seat without any relief in sight.

To compound Lewis' problems, the Bengals stumbled to 4-12 in 2010 after teasing their faithful in 2009 with a 10-6 record and an AFC playoff berth.

Lewis survived, in part, because he had proven in the past that he could turn things around. He did it with Carson Palmer as the team's indisputable leader. Then, with an injury-riddled Palmer caught in a nasty contract battle with management, things began to unravel in the Queen City.

Palmer's departure swung open a floodgate of problems that sent the Bengals spiraling toward the bottom of the AFC only a few years removed from losing to the Steelers in a wild-card playoff game in 2005.

The Bengals were 19-28 the next three seasons after compiling a 27-21 record the previous three seasons.

Somehow, Lewis has brought the Bengals from the abyss. They have advanced to the postseason three of the past four seasons. They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, but the climate in the locker room has been considerably altered, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

“The key is going to be that our team — as young as it is — hasn't been in a lot of big football games,” Whitworth said. “We've been able to win most of the games we're expected to win the last two years, but we really haven't performed well in the big games.”

Now, the Bengals are considered the favorite to win the AFC North. Despite losing to Chicago in their season opener last Sunday, the Bengals enter their home opener at Paul Brown Stadium on “Monday Night Football” against the Steelers feeling confident they are among the best teams in the AFC.

“The hump for this team is winning the tough games that we've had a habit of losing,” Whitworth said. “I don't think the Chicago game was a setback because if not for a couple of crazy turnovers, we would have put up more points.”

Now, a sense of normalcy appears prevalent in an increasingly settled locker room where the atmosphere often was toxic in the past.

Lewis rebuilt the team mostly through the draft. And their top draft picks — wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton, tight end Jermaine Gresham, linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive end Geno Atkins — have delivered in a big way.

“I think the restructure comes from the people you have and the leadership that comes from them,” Lewis said. “I think the leadership is strong.

“The ultimate goal is in keeping people moving in the right direction. You don't do it by reading about it or talking about it. You've got to go out and earn it.”

The Bengals are challenging themselves. They envision their matchup with the Steelers as a pivotal moment to prove they are among the NFL's elite.

“We need to win,” defensive end Michael Johnson said. “We need to beat the Steelers. We understand we have a lot of talent on this team. We don't want to let each other down. We're going out with the attitude we can win every game. We have to learn from the Chicago game, which is something we hadn't done in the past.”

In the past, the Bengals had far too much to overcome. Still, they are trying to figure out a way to conquer the Steelers in their own backyard where they have lost 10 of the past 11.

“We need to change right now,” said Lewis, in his 11th season in Cincinnati. “If we knew the answer to that, we'll push a button and correct it. We have to focus because it's a new season.”

Also, the Bengals haven't fared well in prime time. They haven't won a Monday night game since 2007.

Lewis and Dalton both said emphatically it's time for the Bengals to “change history.”

“You want to perform on the big stage,” Dalton said. “You can't put any added pressure on yourself. We can't try to do too much.”

However, if the Bengals are to displace Baltimore and the Steelers atop the division, they must do more than they did in losing to the Bears. They committed three turnovers in crucial situations — a reminder of how often they've imploded under pressure.

“The good teams know how to come up with the play that makes the difference in winning and losing,” Whitworth said. “Pittsburgh has done it for years. New England has done it. Baltimore is learning how to do it.

“If you look at this team, we've got good players at almost every position. And that's unique in this league. It helps that we have some really good veteran players and some talented young players.”

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict said the Bengals can't fully realize their potential until they can consistently beat the Steelers and Ravens.

“I think everyone understands we have a lot at stake,” Burfict said. “We have a chance to make a run, but at the end of day you can't make a run if you don't win.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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