Cincinnati Bengals: George Iloka

CINCINNATI -- This offseason's free agency period is still two months away, but that doesn't mean it's too early to take a quick look at what the Cincinnati Bengals might be bracing for a year from now.

Green
Though tight end Jermaine Gresham and linebacker Rey Maualuga headline the 15 free agents the Bengals have to figure out how to handle this offseason, there are 17 more players under contract who would be free to leave beginning next March. Four of the 17 alone play receiver, with Pro Bowler A.J. Green headlining the group.

Green's free agency status is a bit of an anomaly, though. It's likely that after his fifth-year option (one that will pay him about $10 million for the 2015 season) expires, Green will be extended the team's franchise tag next offseason, or a long-term deal will be negotiated. If the Bengals were so inclined and had the money to do it, they would give Green a new deal this offseason to avoid using the franchise tag.

For now, it doesn't appear that will be happening.

Beyond Green, there are are several other big names to watch who will be entering the final years of their existing deals this fall. Andrew Whitworth, Marvin Jones, Adam Jones, Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka are among those who could become free agents next offseason. Six of the 17 would be 30 by the start of the 2016 season.

Here is an early look at the Bengals' complete list of potential 2016 free agents:

Unrestricted*
WR Green
WR Mohamed Sanu
WR Greg Little
WR Marvin Jones
OT Andre Smith
OT Whitworth
DE Robert Geathers
DE Wallace Gilberry
DT Brandon Thompson
LB Vincent Rey
LB Chris Carter
CB Hall
CB Adam Jones
S Nelson
S Iloka

Restricted
LB Jayson DiManche
LB Nico Johnson

Note: The unrestricted free agents are to account for $51,207,888 of the Bengals' salary cap in 2015. That would be more than 37 percent of the Bengals' salary cap for 2014. No one knows exactly what the overall salary-cap figure for the 2015 season will be.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 26-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Gresham
Lamenting injury losses: All season, the Bengals have harped on how they hated using injuries as excuses. But the fact is, had it not been for ailments to certain players at critical times of the season, perhaps the year would have ended differently. In addition to playing another game without Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals learned Saturday they would be without Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. Hours before Sunday's game, they found out Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham would be missing, too. Asked about how hard Green and Gresham's absences made things for the offense, receiver Mohamed Sanu said, "Extremely hard. When they [the Colts] have their best players playing and we have some of our best players missing, you can't do what we want to do."

Health a key to 2015? Sticking with the injury theme, rookie running back Jeremy Hill said the biggest change the Bengals needed to undergo in the offseason was simply getting healthy. In addition to the trio above, the Bengals also were without Marvin Jones -- their second-leading receiver in 2013 -- and tight end Tyler Eifert, among others, this year.

'Look at the Panthers': Like most Bengals, safety George Iloka was disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game. He knows this loss will "resonate with longtime fans" who haven't seen a postseason win since January 1991. "It's also going to resonate with us," Iloka added. "Like they say, you're only as good as your last game." He added that it didn't necessarily matter how a team got to the postseason. It only mattered what the team did once it got there. "You've got to find a way to come out with the win," Iloka said. "Look at the Panthers. They're under .500 and they found a way to win." Carolina beat Arizona in Saturday's NFC wild-card round game after finishing the regular season 7-8-1.
CINCINNATI -- Nine of the 53 players on the Cincinnati Bengals' active roster weren't born the last time the franchise won a playoff game.

Most of the rest were either toddlers or young children living in scattered parts of the world with little sense about what was ahead for the organization they eventually would call their employer.

In fact, little did anyone who called the Queen City home back in January 1991 know that the run of postseason sporting success their Midwest city had enjoyed for two decades was about to end. Three months before, the Cincinnati Reds had just won the last World Series they have played in, and the Bengals were days away from their most recent playoff victory.

An entire generation has grown up in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky having missed out on a championship parade.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati skyline
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati is in a postseason drought that's lasted almost a generation.
Those are the people Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton contends he and his teammates are thinking about and playing for Sunday when they travel to Indianapolis for a wild-card round playoff game against the Colts. When the teams meet Sunday afternoon, the Bengals will be trying to put an end to a 24-year postseason win drought.

"We're not just doing this for us," Dalton said. "We're doing it for the whole city of Cincinnati."

After Sunday night's 10-point loss in the regular-season finale at Pittsburgh, a game that determined this year's AFC North champion, safety George Iloka said he was focused on winning something that would last a lifetime for himself and his team's fans. He sheepishly admitted he had no idea where the hat he received for the Bengals' 2013 AFC North championship was in his home. He figured it was somewhere collecting dust.

If the Bengals make to the Super Bowl and win, he knows his reward for that accomplishment won't be decaying in an obscure corner.

"We need to do something to get the fans back on our side," Iloka said. "Like I say, you wouldn't put your body out there on the line for what? Dollars? That means nothing, honestly. To me, it doesn't. You want to get some hardware. You want to get something that lasts forever. Dollars don't last forever. Division hats don't last forever.

"You want something that the fans will remember and that you'll remember from the playoffs."

He wants a Super Bowl ring.

"We owe that to these fans, we owe it to ourselves," Iloka said. "We've worked hard. The ownership. We owe [a win Sunday] to everybody."

Cornerback Adam Jones, who has been with the Bengals since 2010, a year they went 4-12, wants the city to finally earn a championship. But beyond that, he also wants one for himself.

"More important to the guys in this locker room who have been working 365 days, working hard to get it together, is to do something special," Jones said.

He was quick to point out that making it to the postseason four years in a row is special enough for many organizations. But like Iloka, Jones wants much more.

"We cherish the moment, enjoy the moment, but at this stage, for the guys who have been in the locker room going through hell and high water," Jones said, "we just need to win the game."

More than two million people who call the Cincinnati metropolitan area home would agree.

After loss, Bengals are 'On to Indy'

December, 29, 2014
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PITTSBURGH -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

'On to Indy:' Two Bengals took a page out of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's playbook minutes after Sunday night's loss when they cautioned an approaching reporter about the questions they were going to answer. Running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill made it clear they weren't in the mood of discussing the regular-season finale. Instead, they were training their minds and mouths for next Sunday's wild-card playoff game at Indianapolis. "We're on to Indy," both said twice. It was a reference to Belichick's "We're on to Cincinnati" quip that was made the week the Patriots were playing the Bengals, just days after they were embarrassed by the Chiefs, 41-14.

Iloka
'Time to change it:' Already, the questions about the Bengals' lack of playoff victories are coming. And safety George Iloka has the same response to them as he did two weeks ago about the inquiries referencing the Bengals' struggles in prime time. Before the Bengals beat Denver on Monday and lost at Pittsburgh, they were 2-6 at night. They now are 3-7. "Like I said about the prime time -- if it's annoying, if it bugs you, you've got to change it," Iloka said. "If you don't like it, you've got to change it." The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season and are 0-5 in the postseason under Marvin Lewis.

Nelson's no comment: As players and coaches from both teams were shaking hands moments after Sunday's game, Bengals safety Reggie Nelson and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin exchanged barbs. Nelson hit Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell low at the end of a 19-yard reception in the third quarter, and Bell hyperextended his right knee. Neither wanted to comment much about it after the game. In the Bengals' locker room, Nelson held his ground, rebuffing reporters who tried to sneak in questions about the fracas.

CINCINNATI -- The fourth-quarter clock ticked to the final three minutes.

With his Denver Broncos trailing the Cincinnati Bengals by two points, Peyton Manning went through a series of pre-snap audibles and fake audibles as he tried to lead a 51st career comeback drive.

Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick peeked to his right and saw Manning flash a sign that he had seen in his week of film study and preparation.

Kirkpatrick could tell that Manning was about to throw his way.

An inside route by Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas and an outside read from Kirkpatrick later, and Manning all but handed the third-year defensive back his second interception of the season. Kirkpatrick returned it 30 yards for a touchdown that pushed the Bengals' lead to two scores. It was the singular play that defined a just-good-enough defensive performance in the Bengals' playoff-clinching, 37-28 win Monday night.

"I'm not saying we knew what he was going to do," said Kirkpatrick, who picked Manning off a second time nearly two minutes later to ice the game. "[But] I kind of knew in a sense that he was coming my way. I just played my technique, and everything came my way."

Although they intercepted Manning four times and were dominant at times, the Bengals lacked consistency on defense, especially during a third quarter in which Denver scored three touchdowns to erase a 20-7 halftime deficit.

"Even if it appeared that we were [impressive], they still scored points," safety George Iloka said. "It wasn't pretty, but with a quarterback like a Peyton, [Tom] Brady, Aaron Rodgers, it's a battle. You've got to play all four quarters."

In the past 14 months, each of those quarterbacks have gone down at Paul Brown Stadium. And just like they did with Manning, who entered with an 8-0 career record against Cincinnati, the Bengals needed some stroke of magic in the final minute to beat the other two. Against Brady last October, the Bengals won when Adam Jones intercepted a pass that he bobbled to himself in a driving rainstorm near the Bengals' goal line.

Monday's finish was eerily similar, all the way down to the rain showers that descended upon the stadium in the fourth quarter. Manning's receivers had trouble catching the ball in the weather, repeatedly dropping his passes onto the slick field turf.

According to the Bengals, that's not all that changed in the fourth quarter.

"We just said, 'We're not going to be beat,' and as a secondary especially, we did good at keeping our poise," safety Reggie Nelson said. "We just didn't want to give the game away, period, because they've been down numerous times and came back on numerous teams."

What also changed was that at the end of the third quarter, the Bengals switched from veteran cornerback Terence Newman to Kirkpatrick following a series of passes in which Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders burned Newman. On consecutive series, Newman was beaten on a 33-yard completion that he also was flagged with defensive pass interference on, and a 46-yard completion.

Not long after, in came Kirkpatrick, who effectively finished the game at the left boundary corner position. His emergence off the bench gave the Bengals a timely and adequate jolt ahead of a win that put them in the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight season.

"It's just what he does," Iloka said of Kirkpatrick. "He gets the job done and does it very well. I'm really proud of him. Like he always told y'all, he'll be ready when his time comes."

Some Bengals fans want his time to be now. They want him to start for Newman next week at Pittsburgh. That likely won't happen, but Kirkpatrick's time isn't far away.

"Good things come to those that wait," Kirkpatrick said.

Win, and the Cincinnati Bengals are in

December, 22, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- Bottom line, the Cincinnati Bengals now have to win.

Iloka
With Pittsburgh's win Sunday afternoon against Kansas City, the playoff push has accelerated for the Bengals. They have been in do-or-die mode the past two weeks, but now the burden of needing at least one more regular-season victory becomes even bigger.

At this point, two straight losses -- beginning with one potentially on ESPN on Monday night at home against the Denver Broncos -- could mean the team that has been on top of the AFC North since Week 11 could end the season out of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. If the Bengals do lose their final two games, though, there also would be a very slim chance that they could still advance. In order for that to happen, they would need San Diego and Baltimore to both lose next weekend before Cincinnati's Sunday night game in Pittsburgh.

But if you're Cincinnati, you don't want to leave your fate in the hands of another team.

"We control our destiny," safety George Iloka said a couple days ago. "So it doesn't really matter as of right now what another team does. We'll definitely know going into Monday what we need or don't need to determine the outcome of the season."

It's simple: just win.

Regardless what happens Monday night, the Bengals will have a chance to clinch not only a playoff berth but also a second straight division title, with a win at Pittsburgh next week. In that sense, the pressure is comparatively low against the Broncos. Quarterback Andy Dalton, who normally seems to play tight in prime-time games, should be loose Monday. Next Sunday night at Heinz Field, though, could be a different matter.

The NFL announced this past Sunday that next Sunday's game will be flexed from a 1 p.m. ET kickoff into prime time. The 8:30 p.m. ET game will now air on NBC, and give the Bengals a second straight night game. Ahead of Monday's contest, they are 0-2 so far this season at night, and 2-6 since 2011.
CINCINNATI -- Inside the meeting room run by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker coach Matt Burke is a large poster that features a pair of wide tiger eyes.

It's a fitting poster because of the team's mascot, but it also is fitting because of what the eyes represent to the players, specifically on defense. As perfect as the poster is for the room's decor, this is real reason behind it being in the room. It's a tool used often to illustrate proper playing technique.

Manning
When it comes to getting players to keep their eyes trained on a particular target or route or assignment, secondary coaches like seeing "clean eyes," just like the unflinching, straight-ahead-staring pupils on the poster in the linebacker room. What they don't want to see are the eyes Burke and co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph loathe: "dirty eyes."

Those are the ones that result from players looking in places other than the assignment they have been asked to carry out. Against the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning on Monday night, Bengals linebackers and defensive backs must avoid having those, pre- and post-snap. If they get caught looking in the wrong spots during the nationally televised game, they could end up getting beaten, and soundly, by one of the smartest players the NFL has ever seen.

"You can't have dirty eyes, keep your eyes clean," Burke said. "Especially this week because he's the master of trying to trick you in some of that stuff."

Before he requests the ball from center Will Montgomery, Manning has made it a habit of going through a series of twitches, ticks, gyrations, shouts, motioning, audibling, hutting and fake-call yelling. He's an actor, often calling out words that mean absolutely nothing to the play the Broncos are going to run. But sometimes, there is a functional tweak that comes from his many movements and line calls that do alter plays and have real meaning.

The problem is deciphering what's real and what isn't.

Eight days isn't enough time for the Bengals to even try figuring that out. All they can do is execute the play defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has them prepared for and not overreact to Manning's mannerisms. The Bengals' minds will be tested in ways they maybe haven't been this season.

"A chess match? It's more a chess match between him and Guenther," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "I'm not even involved. I'm just a pawn, I feel like. I get communicated to from coach and I get the call to everyone, warn everyone about pre-snap keys that I see, and go play as hard as I can because [Manning] knows what he's doing."

Yes, Manning does. After all, he's been running through his pre-snap show for 17 seasons, has been to 13 Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl.

"He's smart," cornerback Terence Newman said. "Really, really smart."

Add Manning's movements with the play-actions the Broncos run, and the focus on maintaining clean eyes becomes even bigger.

Still, there are pre-snap modifications the Bengals can make that might get Manning thinking a little more.

"You want to throw some disguises at him even though he's seen it all," safety George Iloka said. "Just try to throw different coverages at him. You don't want him back there, 'Oh, they're in Cover 4, we'll hit this. They're in Cover 2, we'll hit this.' You want to hold your disguises as long as possible."

Because Manning, the actor, certainly will.

Stop the run to stop Peyton Manning

December, 19, 2014
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CINCINNATI -- It's the most odd formula for beating a quarterback the caliber of the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, but it may be the Cincinnati Bengals' best hope for claiming a crucial 10th and playoff-clinching win.

The Bengals believe if they can stop the run and force Manning to pass, they will have a chance Monday night when the teams meet at Paul Brown Stadium.

An utterly absurd concept, right?

Maybe not.

"[That's] crazy to say with the quarterback they have," safety George Iloka said, "but you don't want them to have the running game and the passing game going."

It's all about forcing the Broncos into having a one-dimensional offense. If the Bengals can get the Broncos to pick an aspect of the game to lean on early, it could bode well for the home team by the end of the night.

With the way things have been going of late for Denver, it makes sense the Bengals would want to make the Broncos rely on their passing attack -- as bizarre as that might sound. One reason why? Because, across the past three games, Manning hasn't passed as well as he did in the first 11.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning has averaged 15.7 fewer passing attempts in the past three games than in the first 11. He also has thrown for 128.5 yards per game less in the past three weeks than he had at earlier points this season.

Manning's accuracy has been an issue, too, particularly overthrows and under-throws. Per Stats & Information, his off-target passing percentage skyrocketed in recent weeks from 16 percent across the first 11 games to 27 percent in the past three. That accounts for the second-worst off-target passing percentage in the league across that stretch. Only Colin Kaepernick's 33 percent is worse.

The veteran quarterback also has had problems inside the opposing 20. After leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR in his first 11 games, he ranks outside the top-20 qualified signal-callers in those same categories the past three games.

Inside the red zone, his completion percentage has nosedived from 77.8 percent the first 11 games to 42.1 percent in the last three. Also, after averaging two red-zone touchdowns a game in the first 11, Manning has averaged just 0.3 in the last three. Part of those drop-offs could be attributed to tight end Julius Thomas missing three games due to an ankle injury and getting used in a limited capacity last week against San Diego.

While the Broncos' passing numbers have gone down, their rushing numbers have soared. Since Week 12, they lead the league in rushes (148) and rushing yards (659). Running back C.J. Anderson has been the ground game's spark, gaining more than 160 yards in two of the four games in that stretch. That's yet another compelling reason why the Bengals must focus on shutting down the run early.

"You stop the run in November and December, it puts your team in a good position," Iloka said.

Hey, it did work last week against the Browns. After rushing 52 times in a 21-point win over the Bengals in November, Cleveland could only muster 53 yards on 17 carries in last week's 30-0 Cincinnati win. The game plan: stop the run to stop Johnny Manziel.

Do the same thing this week, and maybe, just maybe, the Bengals can beat Manning for the first time in his career.
CINCINNATI -- It's the question Cincinnati Bengals fans have been wanting answered the past four seasons.

Why has this team struggled at night?

"I have no idea," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said Thursday.

"I guess we're afraid of the dark."

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Steven SenneCount defense against opposing quarterbacks among the Bengals' prime-time woes.
It's either that, or something else. What is known is that Cincinnati's struggles in prime time are well-documented, and the Bengals have no one to blame for that but themselves.

Since 2011, the year Andy Dalton was drafted and made starting quarterback, they are 2-6 in games played on Monday, Sunday and Thursday nights. That includes losses earlier this year to the New England Patriots on a Sunday night and to the Cleveland Browns on a Thursday night. The Bengals also have lost their last three playoff games, making their big-game showing the last four seasons an abysmal 2-9 overall.

The last time Cincinnati won in prime time in the regular season, they knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Monday night game at Paul Brown Stadium. Monday's game on ESPN against the Denver Broncos will be the Bengals' first on that night of the week since.

With the looming nationally televised game, this is now the third time this season Bengals players have had to answer questions about their struggles when the sun goes down. They may be tired of hearing these questions but many admitted that until they do something to change the narrative, they know the questions will come.

"It is annoying and it's our job to make it unannoying," safety George Iloka said to reporters. "If we lose this game, the talk will come back again. But that's you all's job to do. If you feel like you see something that the team is lacking or having a problem with, you have to write about it. And if we want to silence the critics, so to say, we've got to put up or shut up. That's how it goes. It might be annoying, but that's on us."

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had similar sentiments.

"Until we do it, you guys are going to keep writing about it. So it doesn't matter what I say or what I think, at the end of the day, we just have to go out and do it," he said.

Pressed during his news conference Thursday about the reasons behind the Bengals' prime-time problems, head coach Marvin Lewis chalked it up to two things: poor defense of the opposing quarterback and turnovers.

"We haven't had any effect on the other team's quarterback," Lewis said. "We also haven't made enough plays effectively on offense, we haven't been very good on third down in some of those games, and they make a big difference."

He's right. In their 11 prime-time and playoff games since 2011, the Bengals have given up an average opposing passer rating of 93.8, and an opposing total QBR of 69.2. They also have lost 17 turnovers, while retained 12 themselves. On third down, the offense has converted at a 29.5 percent clip in these games.

"I don't know why we haven't played as good on defense in those games, but we need to," Lewis said. "I don't know why we haven't played as good on offense, or why we've given up on a play on special teams in those games, but we need to do better."
CINCINNATI -- It seems strange to write these words considering we're talking about a division leader, but more and more, NFL insiders and advanced stat prognosticators are starting to think we may soon see a postseason without the Cincinnati Bengals.

If that were to happen, it would be the first time in four years that the team in stripes would miss the playoffs.

Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz was the latest to make the claim Cincinnati comes up short, stating his case for ESPN Insider on Tuesday. The Bengals' projected playoff odds are lower than those of the Steelers and Ravens, taking a big hit following the latest loss Sunday.

Central to Schatz's argument and many others involving the Bengals as playoff outsiders is their schedule. One of the three toughest remaining slates in the league, the Bengals have two on the road these next three weeks at Cleveland and Pittsburgh and one home game on a Monday night against Denver. As you probably well know, the Bengals are 2-9 in prime-time and playoff games since 2011, the year Andy Dalton became their starting quarterback.

As it relates to those remaining division games, the Bengals have already lost this season -- at home, no less -- to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. As a result, losses in both of those cities seem like distinct possibilities.

Like safety George Iloka put it after last Sunday's 21-point loss to the Steelers, the next three weeks have to be viewed as their own separate playoff games.

"We have to do everything we can to come out of their home field with a win," he said, speaking specifically about this Sunday's game at Cleveland. "For me, I'm treating it like a playoff game. A one-game series. Each game is important."

It certainly is. If you play around on ESPN's Playoff Machine (as I did for a while early Wednesday), you'll see the Bengals probably need to win two of these next three in order to win the AFC North. True, they have the division lead right now, but they are only up a half game on the Steelers and Ravens. With Baltimore facing Jacksonville and Houston in the next two weeks, it's wholly possible that Baltimore will enter the regular-season finale against the Browns needing just one win to sneak past everyone and claim the division crown.

Cincinnati not only has to win. It must win.

Two wins might do the trick. Per the playoff machine, it doesn't much matter the combination of the two wins, just that they have to happen. The Bengals could win the next two and drop the finale, and they're in. They could lose Sunday and win the last two, and they're in. They could lose to the Broncos but beat the Browns and Steelers and they still are in with a 10-5-1 record.

Either way, neither of those scenarios will include cakewalk victories. That's why some think it's possible the Bengals might not make it this year.
CINCINNATI -- When it comes to addressing a rival ahead of a pivotal game that has major playoff implications, Marvin Lewis could take a lesson or two from one of his players.

Hours before the Cincinnati Bengals coach used poor taste in attempting to joke on the radio about the difficulty in slowing the smaller-in-stature Johnny Manziel, safety George Iloka smartly navigated reporters' questions Monday about the Bengals' motivations for this Sunday following last month's 21-point loss at home on national television to the Cleveland Browns.

Iloka
 Did Iloka view this weekend's game at First Energy Stadium as payback for the sound beatdown the Browns administered?

No.

"I don't look at as payback. I look at it as they're an opponent, and we need to win," Iloka said. "We're only a half-game up. I don't look at it as it being payback. I just look at it as they're a good team."

Smart answer. Correct answer, at least, publicly. Privately ought to be a different matter. If they want to win, the Bengals better go into this game with a chip on their shoulder for the embarrassment they suffered at home to a team that's currently mired in a quarterback controversy, and one that also holds the fourth and final spot in the ultra-competitive AFC North standings.

On the heels of last Sunday's 42-21 loss at home to the Steelers, in which the suddenly punchless bunch gave up 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points, the Bengals better play with the same "smart bully" swagger they wanted to be known for having in the early part of the season.

Even if quarterback Andy Dalton says in front of the cameras (like he did Monday) that he, too, doesn't view this game any differently because it's the Browns, deep down, he better. If any player ought to want to bounce back after the team's atrocious showing against Cleveland last month it ought to be him. Dalton set a career-low in completions (10) and finished with a 2.0 passer rating that was the worst for a quarterback in a single game in 31 years.

Privately, he also better be focused on winning for January's sake. If he does, he keeps giving himself chances to shut down the narrative about his postseason play. Dalton still hasn't won a playoff game after three postseason trips his first three seasons. He's hoping Year 4 goes differently.

In addition to being asked about retribution, Iloka was questioned about preparing for Browns quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. Again, Lewis might want to take notes.

"We've probably got to prepare for both," Iloka said. "Obviously with Johnny Manziel they have a few different things in their offense they can do because he's probably faster than Hoyer. But they've still got to run the same routes. They still have the same receivers and tight ends and running backs and offensive line. They'll change up a little bit, but we'll prepare for both of them."

End of sentence, end of quote. That's all Lewis had to say.
CINCINNATI -- It's hard for many of them to fathom at the moment, but the Cincinnati Bengals are still in first place in the AFC North, and very much in control of the direction of their postseason future.

"It definitely doesn't feel like it," linebacker Vincent Rey said.

Britt
Whitworth
Sunday's 42-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was so jarring, it gave the impression the Bengals slipped from their perch atop the division. But they haven't. If the Bengals let those thoughts linger all week, though, they very easily could drop down a notch with another loss next weekend at Cleveland.

If they don't want that to happen, the Bengals better figure out a way past yet another lopsided defeat.

"For me, I'm treating it like a playoff game," safety George Iloka said of next Sunday's scheduled late-season rematch with the Browns. "Each game is important. When we go up there, we have to go out there like Pittsburgh came out here. It's now or never. The next game is very important, and we have to come together."

Ahead of Sunday's game, some Steelers had remarked that they were approaching the game against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium as if it were an elimination game. With a loss -- and potentially one more -- Pittsburgh's AFC Playoff hopes might have dried up completely.

Even though they had a one-and-a-half-game lead over the rest of the division, the Bengals ought to have been treating this game the exact same way. Surely, with another two losses, they won't make the playoffs now. A 9-6-1 record might not be enough this season in a highly competitive AFC. For now, the tie is helping at least preserve half a win, keeping the Bengals in front of the other AFC North teams by that narrow margin.

Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth has the best approach when it comes to viewing Sunday's defeat.

"It's a loss, but the truth of the matter is, we still have everything in our hands if we can win out," he said. "It's a loss, and that's all it is. Just like we see with historic and great teams in this league, they bounce back and go on another streak, and we have been able to do that this season.

"This is going to be another critical time to do that, as well."

After their previous loss, a 24-3 blowout by the Browns a month ago, the Bengals rattled off three straight wins on the road. You can question how good each of those teams were, but still, winning away from home in this league is never easy. And to do it three straight weeks is even more difficult. If they can finish the season on a 3-0 streak, with two of those three games on the road, they would have won the three biggest games of their season.

Oh, and they will have finished the season in first place.
CINCINNATI -- Visit practice on a football field at any level during the preseason and you'll hear the same word shouted multiple times.

Finish!

It's the call sounded by coaches hellbent on getting players to run through routes and drills, and to make it through plays until long after the whistle sounds.

The repeated pleas have a deeper meaning, though. Sunday afternoon inside Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals didn't live up to it.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals couldn't stop Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers in the fourth quarter.
"That's what coaches all the way from high school talk about -- finish the drill, finish the drill," safety George Iloka said. "That's the metaphor. Finish the drill means finish the game."

For three quarters against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals were great. With a 21-20 lead at the start of the final period, they had momentum and the ball and looked like they were going to emerge with a fourth-straight win.

But a fumble on a faked read-option hand off turned into a turnover, which turned into a Steelers score. And another. And another.

After the fumble and three touchdowns later, the Bengals lost, 42-21. It was the first time they had lost a second consecutive game at Paul Brown Stadium by 21 or more points since 2002, when current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was Cincinnati's head coach.

Following the fumble Sunday, it seemed like the fourth quarter simply got by the Bengals and everything snowballed in the wrong direction.

First, it was Le'Veon Bell who capitalized on the fumble by scoring on a 13-yard touchdown run on Pittsburgh's possession that immediately followed the turnover. Three minutes later, Martavis Bryant blew past Bengals corner Leon Hall on a play-action go route that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made sure to throw long.

"They showed a coverage and I didn't believe them," Roethlisberger said of the Bengals' defense. "We did a little play-action and just let it fly. I've underthrown him in practice because when he gets running, he's fast. I just put it out there, let him run under it, and he did the rest."

After Bryant's score, Bell added a 22-yard touchdown run that proved to be the final backbreaking score. Of Pittsburgh's 543 yards of total offense, 229 came in the fourth quarter.

"I can't tell the psyche of everybody individually, but I just know on a collective whole we just didn't finish," Iloka said.

With three games still left on the regular season schedule and the Bengals still enjoying a lead -- albeit a slim one at a half game -- in the AFC North, some weren't too broken up about the lack of finishing.

"One quarter of football doesn't define our season," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We don't worry about the ending score of games. We worry about whether we won. That's the only thing they keep track of. That'll be important: to bounce back and win the next three games by a half a point or by 30. I don't care. To win and go 3-0 [the next three weeks], we can put ourselves in position of where we want to be."
CINCINNATI -- We're within a few weeks of this year's Pro Bowl teams being announced, which means voting for the all-star game is beginning to ease into its final days.

Several Cincinnati Bengals are up for consideration, but few defensive players on their roster have probably earned as legitimate a shot at a Pro Bowl berth as safety George Iloka. Enjoying the finest of his three seasons, Iloka has been a central piece to the Bengals' success against the pass.

If that's the case, why isn't he getting more love? That's the question we start with Part 1 of this week's Bengals mailbag:

@ColeyHarvey: Yeah, you know, I kind of blame myself on that one, Rob. George Iloka absolutely deserves more attention for his play this season. Sure, he hasn't been as tested overall as some safeties, but that's truly a testament to how good he has been. Teams have begun realizing that in order to pass on this defense, they have to avoid throwing where No. 43 is on the field. Not only has he done a good job getting his hands on passes this season, intercepting three after having just one through his first two seasons, Iloka also has been a bit of an enforcer. Three weeks ago at New Orleans, he was flagged for what replays revealed was a clean hit when he gave a hard forearm to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham wasn't the same after the first-quarter hit, one that even left him favoring his shoulder moments after the blow. Hits like that have been a consistent part of Iloka's game this season. Good defense in coverage has been, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Iloka leads all safeties in coverage snaps per reception. Receivers going deep have a catch every 60 times a pass enters Iloka's coverage area. That's about 15 more than the next defensive back on the list.

@ColeyHarvey: Speaking of another secondary player who has had a strong year, the Bengals could ill-afford being without Adam Jones for any extended period of time. He gave them a scare earlier this week when he went on concussion protocol after taking a couple hard shots last Sunday on punt return attempts he should have fair-caught. Before he finally did wave his hand above his head in the fourth quarter of the 14-13 win over the Buccaneers, the Bengals turned to Brandon Tate for one return. As for changing up the returners to keep Jones healthy, that's not an option on the table. Neither is playing Dane Sanzenbacher there. The plan is to keep the same Tate/Jones rotation that mostly depends upon where on the field the return is slated to take place. Jones often returns when it appears he'll have space to roam free. But if teams start following Tampa Bay punter Michael Koenen's lead and kicking high and short to neutralize Jones' explosiveness, it might not matter who is back to return.

@ColeyHarvey: Nick, does quarterback Andy Dalton have that kind of game in him? Yes. But he also has a 90-yard, three-interception day in him, too. That's part of his charm of inconsistency. The game plan doesn't really affect how often Dalton can get in the end zone and how prolific he is each week. It's more that he has better weeks than others because he plays better in some weeks than others. That said, Sunday's game against the Steelers definitely is a big one, and it's a game in which they need him to play his best football regardless of his statistics. Does Cincinnati need him to put up those numbers? Probably not, as long as the defense keeps playing well, and if the Bengals can get strong performances from their running backs. Besides, it will be tough to have such a day when you're facing a team that has Troy Polamalu and now a healthy Ike Taylor roving the secondary.
CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton may struggle in prime-time, posting a 2-9 career record in night and playoff games. But in December, he's apparently a sight to behold.

Since 2011, the year Dalton became their starter at quarterback, the Cincinnati Bengals are 10-4 in the month. That strong record has been one way to explain the Bengals' three straight postseason berths. Quite simply, they have demonstrated in recent years an ability to get hot at the right time.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesAndy Dalton has an impressive December winning percentage.
The big problem, though, is that play doesn't carry over. They don't capitalize upon it and use it once January rolls around and the playoffs arrive. As has been the case each of the last two years, they hope this one will be different.

At the start of a month that features three division games, beginning with Sunday's home showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals this week discussed what "December football" means to them:

Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator
"It's winning time. This is when you grow. This is when the real players show up, because this is an opportunity to really make something special happen. The great football players, this is when you get lathered up. People remember what you do in December. That's the old term. December, January football is where it's at and our guys understand that. You give yourself the opportunity to get to this month to really earn something and collectively, as a football team, we've kind of done our part. Not as well as I'd have liked for us to do it, but we've gotten to this point to where now it's time to push to make sure we get this thing done correctly."

A.J. Green, receiver
"Anything before this really doesn't matter. It's what you do in December. You try to make some big plays and see who can get on a hot streak."

Andrew Whitworth, offensive tackle
"Every game left is a huge one. This time of year, this is when teams create an opportunity to separate themselves and really have to come out and prove who they are. I said it last week that even the teams with really bad records this time of year are good football teams because they've found a way to right the ship or figured out 'Hey, this is what we're going to have to do to have a chance of winning.

"We understand the impact that games in December have, so we're able to handle them well. It's a unique thing, and the more and more success you have, the more used to it you are and it becomes natural to understanding what's at stake."

George Iloka, safety
"A lot of teams call it 'championship football.' You want to start separating yourself in December to put yourself in position to make the playoffs and make a run in the playoffs. It's very important. We don't want to slack off and have some bad games. We want to keep improving and putting ourselves in position to hopefully win the division and then from there make amends for last year's playoffs [when the Bengals lost in the first round]."

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