CINCINNATI (AP) _ Heading into their last game, coach Marvin Lewis showed his players a list of all 32 NFL teams divided into two columns.
On the left were the teams in contention for the playoffs. In the right-hand column were the Cincinnati Bengals and the other teams on the outside looking in.
It only takes two games to put you over in that left column,'' Lewis said.And when you get in that left column, the sky's the limit for you. Unfortunately, we were in the right column last year, and we fought back over into that left column.
``We're kind of in the same boat again.''
Same boat, but it's taking on water fast.
The Bengals (3-5) have the same record at the season's midpoint, but the similarities end there. Last year, they became the NFL's feel-good story of the second half by playing their way into contention before finishing 8-8.
It's going to be awfully tough to duplicate it, primarily because the AFC North has changed dramatically.
In Lewis' first season, the 3-5 mark was good enough for second place, trailing Baltimore by only two games. There was little ground to make up and more than enough time to do it.
This time, the 3-5 gets them last place, a daunting four games behind Pittsburgh with eight to play. And the toughest half of the schedule lies ahead, including road games with Washington, Baltimore, New England and Philadelphia.
A loss on Sunday against the Redskins (3-5) would essentially end all pretense of a playoff surge.
We've got to make sure we continue to climb out of this hole,'' receiver Chad Johnson said.There's no time for us to go backward.''
Lewis is trying to buoy his players' spirits by reminding them of last year, when quarterback Jon Kitna emerged as the NFL's comeback player of the year and a healthy roster found its stride in the second half.
This time, novice quarterback Carson Palmer is running the show and the injury lists are already brimming _ a dozen players done for the season, nearly that many playing through problems.
The group of rookies pressed into service because of injuries looked good during a 26-3 victory over Dallas last Sunday, providing a glimmer of hope that they're finally catching on and the second half my not be so bad after all.
I don't know that they came here expecting to do this. We've got a lot of young guys playing a lot of football,'' Lewis said.They're all kind of finding their little roles and niches, and coaches are trying to fit them into the right spots.''
It could get worse. Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson is playing with a sore knee that forced him out of the game in the fourth quarter Sunday, Several others are going week-to-week with injuries that could get worse.
Lewis tells them not to worry about it.
We're not going to keep hoping for this or that,'' he said.We are what we are, we are who we are. Let's just keep going forward. No Hall of Fame player is going to drop out of the sky and we're going to ride off on his shoulders.''