PITTSBURGH – Since Marvin Lewis became head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003, the road to the postseason has always gone through Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
This year is no different for the McDonald native and Fort Cherry High School graduate.
For the Bengals to earn their first back-to-back postseason berths since the 1981 and 1982 seasons, Cincinnati (8-6) must beat the Steelers (7-7) Sunday at Heinz Field before closing out their regular season at home against the Ravens (9-5).
“We do this in order to win championships,” said Lewis. “In order to win championships, you’ve got to go through the teams who have been the best on our side, and that’s Pittsburgh, No. 1, and Baltimore. I’ve been in this division for longer than anybody, other than Dick (LeBeau). We know how it’s built and how tough it is.”
Lewis has led the Bengals to a 77-80-1 record in his 10 years with the Bengals, making him Cincinnati’s winningest coach. But he has yet to win a postseason game in three tries, including losing to the Steelers in the opening round of the 2005 playoffs.
The Steelers’ 27-24 overtime loss in Dallas allowed Baltimore to clinch at least a wildcard spot in the playoffs, but the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens could all still win the AFC North heading into the final two games of the season.
If Baltimore, which has lost its last three games, loses Sunday against the New York Giants, and Cincinnati beats the Steelers and Ravens to close out the season, the Bengals win the AFC North. The Bengals can also get in, even with a loss this week, if they beat Baltimore next weekend and Pittsburgh loses to Cleveland at home.
If Baltimore can win one of its final two games, the Ravens win the division.
If the Steelers win their final two games and the Ravens lose their final two, Pittsburgh wins the AFC North.
That the Bengals are in contention to earn a playoff spot for the second consecutive season is a tribute to Lewis’ coaching. After an injury-riddled 4-12 season in 2010, Lewis decided it was time to rebuild the Bengals.
Former stars Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson were jettisoned. And Lewis also got rid of some of the risky character players the Bengals had taken chances on in previous years.
Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green were added last season, giving the Bengals one of the best young duos in the NFL. The defense has been rebuilt around defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a fourth-round pick in 2010, and linebacker Rey Maualuga, a second-round pick in 2009.
“There’s a quote Marvin gave me, ‘The rate of the pack is determined by the speed of the leader,’” said Maualuga. “The quicker I get things going, the quicker I get riled up, the more people buy into it. I like the opportunity and the challenge.”
Lewis could be coaching using the same mantra. He’s been on the hot seat a couple of times with the Bengals, but has lasted 10 seasons, an eternity in coaching circles.
“I’m never worried about having to prove anything to anybody,” said Lewis. “We’re competing to get to the playoffs, first to win the division and then to get to the playoffs after that. I think that’s really the only thing I was ever concerned with. The proof is in what you do every week. You’re never going to prove everything to everybody all the time anyway.”
Odds and end zones
Despite being limited in practice on Friday, cornerback Keenan Lewis is probable to play for the Steelers. … Steelers center Maurkice Pouney and linebacker James Harrison missed practice Friday due to illness, but are expected to play. … Cornerback Ike Taylor is out with an ankle injury, while offensive tackle Mike Adams is doubtful with an ankle injury for the Steelers.