Cincinnati Bengals starting safety George Iloka was looking through his locker trying to find his “2013 AFC North Division Champions” hat earlier this week to demonstrate a point, but his fruitless search ended up proving something else.
As much as the commemorative cap represents, it — like the North title itself — is a relic that won’t be of any use when the Bengals step into M&T Bank Stadium today to open the season against division rival Baltimore.
“We were division champs last year, but I promise you Baltimore doesn’t care about that,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “In this sport you don’t get to hold onto anything for very long. We have to go out and earn it again. This would be a great first step toward doing that.”
Leaving the past behind is sage advice for a Bengals team that has found winning in Baltimore as tough as winning division titles of late.
Cincinnati has not beaten the Ravens at home since 2009, when the Bengals won their most recent division title prior to last year’s.
Since 2005, Cincinnati has three AFC North titles and three wins at M&T Bank Stadium, a place that provides the Ravens with one of the strongest home-field advantages in the league.
Baltimore is 39-9 at home since the arrival of quarterback Joe Flacco in 2008, the second-best mark in the NFL during that time span (New England, 42-6).
“The people that come to the game on Sunday think their team is invincible, and that’s a great attitude to have and they carry that into the stadium,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who called the building home as an assistant coach with the Ravens for the first years of its existence from 1998-2001.
“Our guys have to be well-prepared and ready to hit on all cylinders right from the start,” Lewis added. “We’re going in to play at a place that’s loud and has a great crowd all of the time and obviously a good football team.”
The Ravens have been especially tough at home in September, going 11-0 since Flacco took over, including eight consecutive victories in home openers, one of which was a 44-13 drubbing of the Bengals two years ago on Monday Night Football.
“It’s a tough task, especially because they’ve got a good atmosphere there, and it’s tough when you’re playing a good team as well,” said Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who has thrown seven interceptions in three career games at Baltimore.
“You’ve got to be sharp,” he added. “I think turnovers have been key in those games. Staying ahead, staying the course. We’ve played a lot of close games there, we just haven’t been able to come out on top.”
Cornerback Adam Jones said there’s no reason the Bengals shouldn’t come out on top, whether it be after 60 minutes today or after 16 games come December.
“We know that if we play with good technique and no mental errors that we should win the game,” Jones said. “Regardless of what anybody says, we have the best team in the division. Period. Point blank. As long as we all are looking at the same things, it’s going to be a good year.”