Headline hyperbole? Perhaps, but a good argument can be made that Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens in Paul Brown Stadium is the biggest game in the history of the Cincinnati Bengals franchise.
It's not just that a playoff berth is on the line. It's not likely, but there are ways the Bengals can still qualify for the playoffs without beating Baltimore Sunday. Winning is just the guaranteed route. And it's not like fans or critics are legitimately going to look over the body of work of this team, should they finish 9-7 instead of 10-6 and determine 2011 to be a disappointment. For many, this team exceeded expectations when they defeated Cleveland on opening day.
It's where this game comes in the overall history of the franchise. This game Sunday bears a striking resemblance, with more on the line, to the 2003 week 10 showdown when the Bengals knocked off the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs.
Head coach Marvin Lewis was in his first season. Through the first nine games the team was 4-5. That wouldn't be remarkable except they were coming off of a 2-14 campaign in 2002. Lewis had overhauled the roster and had a collection of young starts that would become the foundation of playoff contending teams throughout the decade.
Third year back Rudi Johnson had displaced the disgruntled Cory Dillon and would come close to 1000 yards rushing. The wideouts were a group of brash youngsters including first round draft pick Peter Warrick and the rising star and face of the team, Chad Johnson. It was Johnson the week of the Kansas City game who had "guaranteed" a Bengals victory. That any Bengal, given their 13 consecutive losing seasons would guarantee a win at any time, much less against the lone undefeated team in the NFL, was preposterous.
That team would go on to finish 8-8, missing the playoffs by a narrow margin, losing to Cleveland on the season's final day. Still, everyone knew these weren't the same Cincinnati "Bungles." Under Marvin Lewis, things would be different.
And things were… for a while. The team made the playoffs in 2005, but when Carson Palmer's knee met Kimo Von Oelhoffen's helmet, the upward direction of the franchise changed. Palmer was never the same quarterback, Johnson turned Ochocinco and became Corey Dillon, Part Deux, the once promising draft class of 2005 saw David Pollack break his neck, Odell Thurman get booted from the league with substance abuse issues, and Chris Henry die.
The team made the playoffs again in 2009, but it was a mirage. By 2010, the team that put the "fun" in dysfunctional had returned to PBS as the Bengals finished at 4-12.
Mike Brown responded by reaching a new contract with Marvin Lewis. At the time, the deal was interpreted as "business as usual" from a fan base clamoring for major change. Then franchise quarterback Carson Palmer decided he'd had enough and decided to "retire" rather than play another down for Cincinnati.
That was January of 2011. A year later, inexplicably, a team of youthful overachievers is set to meet a Super Bowl contender on the turf at Paul Brown Stadium. One player on that team will be on the field Sunday, kicker Shayne Graham who will be on the Ravens' sideline. Nonetheless, there is an eerie similarity to this group. The common bond, of course, is the leadership of Marvin Lewis.
It's not been 13 seasons since the Bengals last had a winner. It's only been two, but with all that's happened, it feels like eons ago. Just like in 2003, there's a large skeptical portion of the fan base who have been disenchanted (and understandably so) with the 20 plus years of inept front office management.
They've made a step forward, however, selling out the stadium for the first time this season in a game where half the fans won't be rooting for the opposition. To them, this game is a referendum.
With the calendar turning on Sunday to 2012, Bengals fans want to know if they can come back. They want to know whether we're witnessing the dawn of a new era in Cincinnati Bengals football, or just another blip on the radar of losing. What Marvin Lewis and his young team show them Sunday will provide an answer, and with it a turning point, one way or the other, in the direction of the franchise.
A win means the playoffs. No home games, as they'll be the sixth seed, but a welcome gift in a season that was given up for dead before training camp even began. It would be like getting that Red Rider BB gun after being sure it wasn't coming.
A loss, if it's competitive, won't be disastrous, but will postpone the referendum to the off season where fans will be looking at the follow up moves to see if the Bengals can actually strengthen what they have with their multiple draft picks, or will they make more "Chris Perry" type decisions. A loss won't keep those who've stepped out this week coming back. A loss will allow the cynics to engage in an off season of "I told ya so's."
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