Division title is fine, but Bengals want more

CINCINNATI -- Minutes after walking back into their home locker room Sunday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bengals accomplished something scores of other Bengals were unable to achieve.

Thanks to a Miami Dolphins loss in Buffalo that came at the same time the Bengals were heading to the showers, Cincinnati had clinched a playoff berth; its third in the last three seasons. Never before had a trio of Bengals teams gone to the postseason in back-to-back-to-back years.

"It's amazing. We're making history," defensive tackle Domata Peko later said.

But the good news didn't stop there. Some three hours later, after the Bengals had all left Paul Brown Stadium, their postseason plans received an added boost as the Baltimore Ravens fell at home to the New England Patriots. That defeat officially clinched Cincinnati's second AFC North crown, and gave it a clear path to the No. 3 seeding in the conference playoff race.

A week after one of their worst Sunday nights of the year, the Bengals had reason to celebrate. But few said they actually would. To them, as great as the events of the day were, there still is so much left to accomplish.

For a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, that's precisely the stance to take.

It also helps explain why there was relative calm inside the Bengals' locker room even moments after word began spreading that the playoff spot was clinched. Indeed, happiness mixed with a little relief was clearly apparent on the faces of those who were present, but there was no wide-scale celebration.

"We've been here before, so we're not going to get too high about this because we still have a lot of work to do," receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "We set out for a goal and we have a lot of unfinished business."

Some of that unfinished business includes finishing out the regular season with a perfect home record. The Bengals have a chance to do that next week when they host the Ravens in the regular season finale. In addition to giving them a win over a division rival, a victory over Baltimore would bounce the Ravens from the playoff picture. A win also could give Cincinnati a chance of boosting its playoff seeding. The Bengals currently sit at No. 3 in the AFC, but a loss by the Patriots next week could push the Bengals into the No. 2 spot and give them the coveted first-round bye.

Beyond those aspirations, though, Cincinnati trying to stay focused on other goals. Still, they understand how big of a step claiming the division championship was.

"You do this to win the Super Bowl, but you can't earn a trip if you can't punch a ticket," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "Our ticket's been punched. And we've got a group of guys that deserve to be there."

For Hawkins, a young receiver who grew up watching the once-scuffling Bengals when his older brother Artrell Hawkins played for the franchise between 1998 and 2003, the three straight postseason trips are still something to celebrate; but only in the right dosage.

"I can remember being young praying for the Bengals to win games, praying to go to the playoffs," Hawkins said. "So to be here and to see three playoff appearances, it's surreal.

"It just shows that everything is headed in the right direction. You put guys in the locker room who are not just great football players, but who are great men, great teammates, guys who are accountable, play for each other and have such a chemistry together. When you do that, that's what it takes for a franchise to take the next step."

What helps an organization that has routinely been stymied by first-round playoff exits change that part of its identity? By becoming dissatisfied with complacency.

"Our goal, I relate it to the Cleveland game [last month]," offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. "All we heard that week was about Cleveland saying what a big game it was, and to us, it was just another game on the schedule. Our goal isn't to beat Cleveland or to beat Baltimore or to beat Pittsburgh. Our goal is to go to the Super Bowl."

On Sunday, the Bengals took two big steps closer to seeing that goal come to fruition. But they still have miles left to walk this season.