Bengals must face improving Saints

Published 12:31 am Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Associated Press

CINCINNATI — The Saints are playing like champs as they open December with a game that’s a two-way reminder of how hard it is to repeat.

Just ask the Bengals. On second thought, don’t bother.

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The defending Super Bowl-champion Saints (8-3) have won four in a row and five of their last six as they head to Cincinnati, getting over the early season blahs that often beset the team with the latest Lombardi Trophy.

“We’re playing a lot better than we were at the beginning of the season as far as being more consistent,” safety Darren Sharper said. “Everyone knows that November kind of sets the table for the latter part of the season, and December kind of separates the good teams from the teams that are going to make a run in the playoffs.”

They can separate themselves a little bit more against the defending AFC North champions, who are already eliminated.

The Bengals (2-9) are a free-falling example of how sustaining success isn’t so easy. They won 10 games last season and kept the roster virtually intact for another playoff run. Instead, they haven’t won a game since Sept. 26, losing eight straight and all hope.

It’s very depressing.

“I think it’s sunk in,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “I think everyone in our locker room understands where we are and why we’re here. More importantly, why we’ve put ourselves in this situation. We’ve been on the opposite end, where we’re fighting for a playoff spot and playing against teams that aren’t going to get in and they’re trying to knock us out.

“That’s the situation we’re in.”

The question is whether their spoiled season has left them too beaten down to play the role of spoiler against a team that’s getting hot at the right time.

The Saints have scored at least 30 points in each of the last three games, wins over Carolina, Seattle and Dallas. They’re a game behind Atlanta in the NFC South, on course for a showdown in Atlanta on Dec. 27 — provided they don’t stumble along the way.

The winning streak has restored confidence to a team that struggled to a 4-3 start, then got beyond the bad karma.

“All you’ve heard all offseason was the curse that’s kind of put on the teams that go on the Super Bowl from the year before, just the challenge of repeating and all those things,” quarterback Drew Brees said.

“We weren’t naive to those things. We looked at them. We studied them and then yet I still think that you have to experience it yourself.

“You’re still going to go through some adversity and growing pains. I think the misconception is that from year to year some say that you pick up where you left off or you kind of start where you finish the year before. No, you’re starting all over.”

Brees is trying to catch up to last season, when he completed a record 70.6 percent of his passes for 4,388 yards, 34 touchdowns, only 11 interceptions and a career-high passer rating of 109.6. So far this season, he’s completing 68.6 percent for 3,321 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 92.7.

Lately, he’s looked more like he did last season.

“He went through a stretch where we probably weren’t running the ball as efficiently as we would have liked and probably weren’t doing enough things offensively that we would have liked,” coach Sean Peyton said. “When that happens, that pressure then usually is put in the quarterback’s lap. He is playing at a higher level now.”

The Bengals thought they would this season, too.

They brought in Terrell Owens to upgrade the passing game, a move that has worked well. Owens is one of the league’s top receivers. The offense overall is no better, unable to do anything consistently or avoid the self-destructive play that decides a game.

A measure of how bad things have gotten: Owens and Chad Ochocinco started their own cable reality show on Oct. 12. The Bengals haven’t won a game since it went on the air.

“Hopefully we’ll put it all together and have something to feel good about for a change,” Ochocinco said. “It’s hard to come in here and still have that positive attitude.”

A year ago, the Bengals opened December in control of their division, on their way to only their second winning season and playoff appearance since 1991. There were thoughts that with a young, emerging defense and Palmer recovered from a serious elbow injury, they could be in line for another title run or two.

Instead, they’re back to playing spoiler, their familiar role in the last 20 years.

“You have a chance to ruin some people’s seasons,” Palmer said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. We’re in a situation where we can kind of change the outcome of the postseason and change who goes with a win here or a win there. That’s what we’re trying to do.”