CINCINNATI – As snowflakes and playoff dreams danced in the air, the best story of the NFL season continued, improbably, to play out here by the Ohio River.
The Cincinnati Bengals aren't the league's best team, and in the end they may not even make the playoffs. But you couldn't tell that to any of the 64,666 rejoicing fans of this rejuvenated franchise as the seconds wound down on Sunday's 41-38 victory over San Francisco at Paul Brown Stadium.
When your team hasn't posted a winning record in 13 seasons, just playing meaningful games in mid-December is something to celebrate. So while the Bengals themselves may remain focused on the push for the postseason, Bengal Mania rages throughout this city.
With the win the long lowly Bungles are 8-6, tied for the AFC North lead and heading to St. Louis for their biggest game since, what, the 1980s?
"It's two weeks before Christmas and we are not thinking about Christmas," lineman Willie Anderson says.
For a franchise that averaged a meager 3.8 victories the last five years and started this season 1-4, that, for now, is enough. Even giving up 500 yards to the Niners and almost booting away a big fourth-quarter lead couldn't dampen fan enthusiasm.
Christmas is coming and the Bengals are still in the hunt.
Still being the new operative word.
Cincinnati was a nice little story in midseason, finally showing some spunk under first-year coach Marvin Lewis and even beating the Chiefs. But by now the Bengals were supposed to have faded back into mediocrity, weren't they?
Instead the Bengals aren't done writing this tale. They are serious about finishing it out, making the playoffs and even making a bit of noise once they get there.
"We are going to do it because it's destiny," Anderson says.
Generally, the notion of destiny doesn't count for much in the NFL, but do you want to argue with Anderson? Who in mid-October would have predicted the Bengals would win seven of nine, including five consecutive at home?
Who could have thought that with Christmas songs on the radio, this town would be obsessed not with college basketball or hot-stove Reds but football? And not even the Ohio State version?
For the last 13 seasons, when the team's victory cry, "Who Dey Think Gonna Beat Dem Bengals?" was chanted, the answer was easy. Everyone. These days the more appropriate question might be "Who Da Heck Dey Think Dey Are?"
How about division champs?
This turnaround is the work of Lewis, who deserves coach of the year honors for completely changing the attitude of the franchise. Not only is losing no longer tolerated, just thinking about it is not allowed.
"The confidence Coach Lewis instilled in everyone in our organization, from the players to the coaches to the equipment men [is the difference]," cornerback Terrell Roberts says. "Even the fans. Everyone knows we are a real team now. We aren't going to get pushed around. We expect to win."
Sunday it showed. San Francisco mounted numerous rallies, scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns. In the past the pressure would have caused Cincinnati to wilt. This season the Bengals counterpunched with rough running back Rudi Johnson (174 yards, two touchdowns) and accurate quarterback John Kitna (25 touchdowns on the season).
"That is our team though," offensive lineman Eric Steinbach says. "We never get fazed. We bounce back and keep playing."
Now they keep playing with so much at stake. If they wind up tied with Baltimore, the relevant tiebreakers favor them. Win out and they are in. Even a split might do it.
Not that the Bengals don't expect to beat the Rams on Sunday, then Cleveland to clinch the division. No one in uniform is content.
"We are not satisfied," Lewis promised. "We will just keep on pushing forward."
So after the game, the players didn't share the ecstatic, happy-to-get-this-far-emotion of their fans. Defensive mistakes made the locker room so low-key that Kitna got everyone to do the "Who Dey?" chant just to brighten the mood.
"I was trying to make sure guys understood that we did win that football game," he smiled. "It was a little bit solemn, somber. But the bottom line is to win."
Cincinnati downplaying a victory? Here in December, with the division on the line, no less?