Officially, they're still known as the Cincinnati Bengals, although "Cinderella Bengals" is becoming the more popular moniker.
The once laughable Bengals (7-5) have won four in a row and six of seven, and first-year head coach Marvin Lewis has them bracing for the franchise's biggest game in 13 seasons -- Sunday's first-place showdown at Baltimore, which probably will wind up settling the issue in the AFC North.
Lewis talked with me Friday, setting the stage for the game against the Ravens and reflecting on the remarkable turnaround unfolding in Cincinnati.
Don Banks: After spending all those years working and waiting for your turn to lead an NFL team, has this week, with its playoff-level atmosphere, lived up to what you always imagined?
Marvin Lewis: I think it has. But I can't allow our guys to think that this week is any different. We need to play just like we've been playing. Not a lot has changed. We've played the past four weeks the same way. This is the same situation we've been in since we lost at Arizona. That eliminated any margin of error we had.
Banks: This kind of game is why you do all the work in the offseason and put in all the long hours. Are you remembering to have some fun and taking time to savor the moment?
Lewis: Yes, and I've made sure that our players know that -- that we have to enjoy this, that we have to have fun. They've worked and earned this opportunity to be playing, all the way from back when we got started in April. As I told them after the game last week at Pittsburgh, it's December. And here we are. This is why you do what you do. This is why you work, you lift weights, you run, you sweat, you bleed -- for this opportunity. So enjoy it. You've earned it. And remember how we got here.
Banks: Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was quoted this week as saying of your Bengals, "Marvin has got them drinking the Kool-Aid.'' What's it mean to hear such a glowing critique of your work as a head coach?
Lewis: It means a lot, because it's somebody looking from the outside in and not inside out. Somebody who knows football very, very well and is very perceptive. It means a great deal to hear that we look like a football team that plays as a football team, because that's the goal.
Banks: How fitting is it that it's Baltimore, your former team, in the game that will probably define your season?
Lewis: I think it's great. Because it's a great benchmark to go against a team that has been together for eight years and has a strong, strong foundation. We get another opportunity to prove ourselves on the road, to see if we're good enough to go beyond this point.
Banks: It's too early for satisfaction, but is there a sense of pride in being able to make Bengals football relevant again?
Lewis: The biggest pride comes from being able to put a product on the field that people have enjoyed watching and people want to touch again. That's the pride. Because we're not done and we're not where we need to be, but we've at least turned that corner that we have people back excited about football in Cincinnati.
Banks: After missing out on some NFL head coaching jobs that you interviewed for, are you of the mindset that there must have been reasons for all that because you're where you were supposed to be?
Lewis: Yeah, I believe things happen for a reason. Going through those times has just made this more fun, more exciting, more worthwhile. Obviously, the experience of being with Brian [Billick in Baltimore] another year was great. And last year in Washington was great for me. So all of those have added to us, to maybe something we've done this year, a button I've pushed or we coaches pushed, that has helped us be one play more successful. No question. So that's been worthwhile.
Banks: You got very emotional in the locker room after you upset Kansas City three weeks ago, especially when you talked about team owner Mike Brown's support. What were you trying to convey to your team?
Lewis: That they didn't need to worry anymore about the people who doubted them, and us as an organization. That no longer could blame be placed on other people. And that we are responsible for winning and losing football games. Not Mike. He helps us. In every way he can, he helps us.
I told them to not allow people to push blame on him and take it off ourselves. Don't allow anybody to do that. Teammates, coaches, whatever. It's about us. And Mike has done everything in his power to help me help our staff and direct this football team to be successful.
Banks: Did Brown let you know what that meant to him?
Lewis: He was very, very appreciative of not only the win, but also of the game ball and so forth, yes. In many ways, he did show me what it meant to him. You know, he's having fun. That's what this should be. This should be fun. And they're all having fun. Everybody here is having fun. From the ticket office to marketing to the people who clean up after the coaches and players and serve our meals, everybody's having fun.
And that's what this should be about. That's what it was about a few years ago in Baltimore. When we turned the corner, everybody had fun. And all their hard work had paid off, because the football team was winning. And all those other people had been working just as hard when we weren't winning.
Banks: Nobody goes into a job thinking they're not going to be successful. But has this happened even quicker than you expected?
Lewis: I don't know. It felt good to win the first game in the preseason. It felt good to win the first game in the regular season, because there's no question that things creep into your mind until you do. You just wonder. You feel like, 'Yeah, we're going to do this.' But you don't know, and every Sunday is that same anxiety. Until that last snap, you have that same anxiety. I don't think it's ever going to go away for me.
Banks: Winning for the first time is always special. Is there anything more rewarding than coaching a team in the midst of this kind of turnaround?
Lewis: I'll tell you what the reward is, it's to see Peter Warrick and guys like him and what they're doing. Because part of this turnaround is people rising above the expectations that have been placed on them or, more important, the lack of expectations, I should say. And them playing to or beyond their potential. That's been the fun. Those are things I find rewarding.
When Peter had the big day against Kansas City, on Friday that week it was a little cold and he was a little sore and he didn't feel like he needed to practice. And probably in the past he would have gotten away with that. But he and I came to words on the practice field that day, and he got going a little bit. That's the fun of it, and then afterward his response to me was, 'Thanks, coach. You were right.'
Banks: Everybody looked at the Bengals job and saw a coaching graveyard, but instead you saw potential. Why?
Lewis: Because I had prepared and coached against them for years. I also felt that -- and I don't know if I was naïve or whatever -- all NFL teams are somewhat structured the same, and you can change the expectations by doing things the right way. You can up lift their level of play by doing things the right way. That's what we've tried to do.