CINCINNATI -- Michael Johnson was caught off guard by the question. So much so that when he blurted out his response, his voice went up an octave and one or two decibel points.
An interviewer was asking the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive end about how seriously he felt his team has had to take its previous game. The Miami Dolphins, the reporter surmised, had to feel desperate after losing four in a row entering last Thursday's contest against the Bengals. Similarly, this week's opponent, Baltimore, has to be feeling just as frustrated after dropping a third straight game over the weekend, the questioner offered.
"We're going to be playing desperate, too," Johnson interjected, his tone changing slightly from his otherwise comparatively mundane responses.
After four minutes, the fifth-year lineman had grown weary of the line of questioning. It was the first time in four days that reporters had seen Bengals players, and as much as they may have seemed like old news, the inquires had to be made. So, in case you're wondering, yes, Johnson is well aware the Bengals are without defensive tackle Geno Atkins. No, he doesn't have a clue what Atkins' loss will mean to the rest of the line, and -- aside from being concerned about his teammate's season-ending injury and well-being -- he doesn't really care. He also doesn't have any feelings about the Bengals' current 2 1/2-game division lead. All he knows is that they have to hold on to it.
That's the reason Johnson wasn't flinching or blinking when he flatly stated what he felt was the significance of every game the rest of this season. The Bengals can't afford to lose anymore the rest of the season. They are in "desperation game" mode, he said.
"Every game from here on out, in my eyes, is a desperation game," Johnson said. "I'm going to play like that."
While Johnson claims he and the rest of his teammates like to approach each game with a similar level of urgency, he admitted that the attention to detail and the focus had to increase even more now. Why, exactly?
"Because we just lost," Johnson said. "We just lost on a safety in overtime on the road to a team that we should have beat. We've got too much talent on this team to have those lulls like we had. We're going to be back. We're going to bounce back and we're going to be all right."
After going on a four-game winning streak, which included a pair of walk-off victories that were decided by field goals and one 40-point drubbing, the Bengals lost to Miami 22-20 on Thursday night when quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked in his own end zone for a game-ending safety. The lone overtime play negated a 338-yard passing performance from the quarterback and helped pile onto what had already been a disappointing night, thanks to Atkins' ACL injury.
"Once I watch the film and make my corrections, it's behind me," Johnson said late Monday of any game he loses. "I didn't watch the film until [Monday], so I'm feeling a little better now, knowing where we can be better and knowing where we're going to get better."
Like Johnson, veteran cornerback Chris Crocker has been studying the division race in recent weeks and knows that the 3-5 Ravens pose every bit of a challenge as the 4-4 Dolphins or the 4-5 Browns. He, too, hopes that for the next seven games and beyond, the rest of his team taps into the urgency Johnson was referencing.
"They are dangerous because they are really trying to find a win," Crocker said about the Ravens. "They are not out of it.
"Anything can happen during the season. You don't take any one opponent for granted."
All Crocker needed to drive his point home was be reminded of another team that was recently 3-5. Last year's Bengals, a group Crocker was part of, rattled off six wins in seven games to close out the 2012 season after getting off to a horrendous first-half start. By finishing the year at 10-6, they made their second straight trip to the playoffs.
"See?" Crocker said.
Part of the Bengals' message during meetings before Monday's walk-through included keeping the bigger picture in mind. Injuries aside, the Bengals felt their 6-3 start was a strong one. They're also buoyed by the fact that they enter the final seven games with only three road trips and one game overall against a team that currently has a winning record.
If a playoff berth and a possible first-round bye are what the Bengals seek, then play like you can't lose another game, and both will come.
"You've done enough to have a lead in the division, but to be honest, this isn't the end," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We still have a lot to go get and a lot to prove."