Sellout a sign Cincy starving for playoff win

CINCINNATI -- Moments after the Cincinnati Bengals beat Baltimore to close out the regular season last Sunday, linebacker Rey Maualuga fielded a few questions before taking off for the evening.

As he pulled on a jacket and strapped on a watch, I asked him to explain what this particular upcoming postseason appearance meant after the series of first-round disappointments the franchise has had in recent seasons. His response was open, honest, candid.

"Winning is a big challenge for us," Maualuga said. "The city of Cincinnati needs it. We need it to build momentum, and get this town hope and give them a reason to cheer."

When it comes to sports, those who have called the Queen City home the past generation or so haven't had much to celebrate. Aside from the collegiate exploits Cincinnati, Xavier and Dayton have had on the hard court, the area's professional sports teams haven't done much lately worth cheering. The Bengals have been in six playoff games since the 1990 season, and lost all but one. The Reds have been in a World Series drought since that year, too.

That is why at a time when it appears the Bengals are best suited to go on their longest postseason run since the 1988 Super Bowl season, it was of utmost importance this week to clear the big hurdle that has been standing in the way since last Thursday. It was important the Bengals sell out Paul Brown Stadium, and do so in way that could give deserving spectators a chance to see the team play.

Thanks to a last-minute ticket buy Friday from a group of corporate partners that included locally headquartered giants Kroger and Proctor & Gamble, thousands of active-duty and veteran military personnel will have a chance to watch Sunday's playoff game against San Diego without having to spend a dime.

It was a power move by the city elite that came with the added benefit of helping some of its most blue-collar souls. Much like the effect of having a winning franchise, the move ought to help unify a community that has been distantly vocal about its football team all season.

"Our fans should take a lot of credit for the fact that we're here," center Kyle Cook said. "Obviously, hats off to your fans just knowing that they can give us that extra push, that benefit to play at home. Not a lot of teams can say that. Our fans have been great all year, and hopefully they'll come out full-force on Sunday."

Expect Bengals fans to do just that. And when they do, be on the lookout. The place the Bengals call "The Jungle" has been hostile to opposing teams all season. The Bengals have scored 40 or more points four times, had six defensive touchdowns, limited the likes of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck, and come away with an enviable 8-0 record.

OK, some of you probably want to back up a few paragraphs. I'm sure you're curious as to what I meant by "distantly vocal." It's this. Bengals fans, you might not pack Paul Brown Stadium each week -- a fact that cornerback Terence Newman noted this week, saying he was surprised to routinely see gaps in the club seating across from the Bengals' sideline -- but your support for this team has been steadily growing in other ways.

Like I mentioned in this opinion piece about attendance at Bengals games last month, I'm still a newbie to these parts. But I do know that since I've been here, I've watched a metamorphosis of sorts within the fan base. Maybe it's also because I've been on the beat a little longer now, and the ESPN NFL Nation buzz has grown dramatically in recent weeks, but it seems like I get more questions on Twitter and emails in my inbox now from people who are legitimately curious about the ins and outs and nuances of the organization. At the earliest stages of my tenure, it seemed like the same few people were posing the same few inquiries.

I noticed another example of the growth of the Bengal bandwagon Tuesday night. In an effort to continue introducing myself to Cincinnati and its customs, I braved the chill of New Year's Eve night and drove downtown to Fountain Square to ring in 2014 with thousands of other Cincinnatians. While there, I noticed countless people in Bengals hats, jackets, coats, scarves, gloves and other team paraphernalia. Even the emcee of the event was wearing a Bengals jersey. While making numerous pleas for fans to scoop up remaining playoff tickets, he led a few "Who Dey" chants.

That distant support is inching closer to the Riverfront. This city is thinking playoffs.

It just wasn't -- for a collection of reasons that the NFL has to concern itself with this offseason -- thinking playoff tickets. Neither were the fans in Green Bay and Indianapolis, who also were tardy in buying tickets for their postseason games this weekend.

But now with a full stadium, don't be surprised if the "Jungle" comes more alive than it has been since the Bengals' first home game of the season.

"I relate it to the home opener," veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said of hosting a playoff game. "That energy and feel is almost overwhelming. The key is going to be worrying about the fact that we're not just happy being in the playoffs. We want to go to the Super Bowl."

To make it to New York in February, the Bengals have to impress their fans with a long lost home playoff win.