‘This is a different team’ -- Bengals prepare for first playoff game since 2016

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard remembers being told when he came into the league not to let losing affect him. It wasn’t fun, but for those like Hubbard who endured the struggles of the past few years, the chance now to play in the postseason is especially rewarding.

The AFC North champion Bengals closed the books on the regular season Sunday with a 21-16 loss at Cleveland, a game in which several starters rested as they already were looking toward the playoffs. Cincinnati (10-7) is preparing for its first postseason appearance since 2015 and seeking its first playoff win since the 1990 season.

Hubbard, a Cincinnati native, wasn’t born until four and a half years after that wild card win against the Houston Oilers on Jan. 6, 1991, and his hometown Bengals didn’t even make the playoffs again until 2005. They lost seven first-round games in 11 seasons before the recent playoff drought.

“Early in my career, I had someone tell me that it’s tough to win in this league, and the only thing you can do is not let it (losing) affect you,” said Hubbard, who was drafted in 2018. “So (during) the years of losing, I just focused on not letting it change me and how I go about my business, and what I did to get me to winning programs and winning championships in the past, and have the faith in the front office, the coaches, the guys in here, the scheme. One day, it would eventually flip, and I would just try to be a consistent force in how I went about my business. Getting this feeling, it’s just really amazing.”

Hubbard had been a part of successful programs at Archbishop Moeller High School and Ohio State, but in 2018 was joining a Bengals organization coming off back-to-back losing seasons and would be apart of three more before the team finally turned the corner big-time this year.

Growing up in Cincinnati supporting the Bengals, Hubbard knows the heartache fans have felt. The core of the team hasn’t been a part of a postseason with this team yet, but others are aware of the significance now having a chance to win a playoff game.

Tight end C.J. Uzomah was a rookie in 2015 and vaguely recalls perhaps a slight sense of that playoff win drought hanging over the team going into the postseason. The Bengals were less than two minutes from breaking the “curse” in a Wild Card game against Pittsburgh after going ahead, 16-15, on an A.J. Green touchdown catch (the two-point conversion failed) and getting the ball back two plays later on an interception. Jeremy Hill fumbled, Ben Roethlisberger took the Steelers across midfield and two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties got them in position for the game-winning field goal with 18 seconds left and that was it.

Now, six years later, the Bengals have another chance, and Sunday’s loss — ending a three-game win streak — doesn’t impact the mood going into the first round. Backup quarterback Brandon Allen threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Chris Evans with 2:26 left to give Cincinnati a chance at a comeback, but the Browns managed to secure the onside kick and sealed the win for the Battle of Ohio sweep.

Cincinnati was playing for the second, third or fourth seed in the AFC after the Chiefs won Saturday, but need to take advantage of the first-round home field advantage.

“I think it would mean something for the city, right?” Uzomah said. “What we have in this locker room this year and kind of what a lot of us have been preaching is this is a different team. This isn’t the team from any year’s past. Certainly, since I’ve been here it’s a culture change and we have new pieces and we are treating it as such. This season is different. And we can feel it. I can feel it around the city. Really, it’s huge for the city.

“We got guys that haven’t been alive – dudes born in 2000, know what I’m saying? It’s different. Some guys might not know about it. I think that’s a good thing. Having some young guys that are just going out – to be honest, having Ja’Marr (Chase) be like, ‘I’m just going out and balling. I don’t know anything else but to go out there and have fun and play football.’ That’s a great attitude to have. You don’t think about a curse or anything like that. You are out there competing and trying to do the best you can and put your team in the position to win.”

The Bengals have changed the narrative since drafting Joe Burrow No. 1 overall last year and Chase at No. 5 this year, while revamping the defense through free agency. Burrow became the franchise’s single season passing leader last week, and Chase broke the franchise single-season receiving record Sunday with his second catch giving him 1,455 yards to best Chad Johnson’s 1,440 yards in 2007.

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd has seen the enthusiasm growing around the city. It’s vastly different than his first five seasons, after getting drafted in 2016 and stepping onto a team still having to answer questions about the blown playoff game. The Bengals went 6-9-1 his rookie season but in 2018, they started 5-3 and won just one of the last eight games, including five straight losses coming out of the bye. That was Marvin Lewis’ last season, and Zac Taylor took over in 2019.

“I think it’s kind of obvious because I’ve been a part of the Bengals when we had a chance to go to the playoffs back then and chances where we came up short,” Boyd said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of guys being injured, and we never really fulfilled a full season with a full starting lineup. So, I think that played a little part in it because the Bengals as an organization was always built to be great, to be in the playoffs. That’s what they did the year before I came, so I knew what I was getting myself into, but just this year is a little different because all the missing pieces just filled in perfectly and every guy staying healthy. We’re being smart with the COVID protocols for the most part. So I mean, everything is just right this year and everything is going right.”

Uzomah believed in this team so much he mentioned Super Bowl goals back in the preseason.

“You have someone like Franchise back there, and you know when the game is in his hands, you put the ball in his hands he’s going to make a play and expects us to do the same. You have someone like Ja’Marr whose chemistry is already there. Now it’s just exploding and people are seeing how great Ja’Marr is already. It’s fun. It’s a fun atmosphere. It’s a fun locker room. It’s a fun huddle. It’s fun just being out there having fun with the boys.”

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