In the real world, the only home games upcoming for the Bengals are whatever games they play in their homes. They're two wins from being a playoff team -- wins they were a long way from attaining. They're no more or less than a break-even team, half good and half poor.
But they're also up and coming in the real world. They're so up and coming that Bengals fans would be rightly upset if the organization doesn't mount a serious bid for next year's playoffs, starting today.
The Marvin Lewis rebuilding of the Bengals is a success, as it stands. He has taken a franchise approaching historic standards for losing and turned it into an outfit that could go into the home of the NFC's best team and leave that team quaking as it approaches the playoffs.
We'll grant, like everyone else, that the Philadelphia Eagles sat many of their best players in that 38-10 Cincinnati win on Jan. 2. But that's an easy game to play.
So we'll also grant that the Bengals entered the game with the second longest injury report in the NFL -- 28 players listed in some flavor of infirmary, including a league-high 16 players on the injured reserve list. The Eagles played without Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens? Well, the Bengals played without Carson Palmer and Peter Warrick. Their top draft pick, Michigan running back Chris Perry, lost the whole year to injury.
Advantage, Bengals. After all, McNabb and Owens are established winners and the Bengals' guys aren't. But the larger part of the Bengals' advantage is that they're much deeper than the NFC's best team at the offensive skill positions, so they could still roll out talents like Jon Kitna, Chad Johnson and T.J
Don't let the poor-mouthing on Philadelphia's behalf fool you. The Bengals scored 38 in the home of the NFC's best team without their starting quarterback or most experienced wide receiver because they bring that much depth and talent to the passing game.
The Bengals were the team reasonable fans hoped to see this year, an explosive outfit that kept even the best defenses on their heels. They also were the team reasonable fans feared they would see this year, a pourous outfit that couldn't stand up against good running teams.
They were half-good and half-bad, not too bad and not good enough. They were 8-8, left short of the playoffs by their defense, just as predicted in this column (see "Is 2004 the 'Some Day' for Bengals Fans?" issue of Sept. 8-14, 2004).
The Bengals ended their 2004 season smack dab in the middle of the league. Of 31 other NFL teams, 13 finished better than the Bengals and 15 finished worse. Three other teams -- Minnesota, St. Louis and New Orleans -- finished with the same 8-8. While Minnesota and St. Louis are off to the postseason, the Bengals don't necessarily belong there, considering they lost four of six to playoff teams and won six of 10 against the rest.
Is there progress in two consecutive years of 8-8? The Bengals finished 8-8 last year, and it marked progress from 2-14 a year earlier.
Often, a team improves by that much in one year and it becomes clear a year later that a lot of it was breaks. Often, that team will regress by a couple games. The Bengals didn't. That's progress.
Where 2003 was a rebuilding season, 2004 was a building season, a consolidating season, a legitimizing season. The Bengals went mostly with Palmer, essentially a rookie quarterback, and lost no ground despite a shaky defense. They won their first road game against a winning team since 1990. And did it twice.
But they were wobbly, too. They needed a last-second touchdown to beat the struggling New York Giants at home. They took themselves out of playoff contention with a woeful home field performance against the Buffalo Bills. They lost to the Cleveland Browns just before the Browns started losing to everybody. They lost another one at Tennessee, which won only four other times.
If 8-8 says anything about a football team, it says the team is inconsistent. It's not the mark of a playoff team to be beatable by teams like Cleveland and Tennessee.
But the more telling measure isn't how the Bengals played against the worst teams, but how they played against the best. Specifically, this year that means Pittsburgh, the division rival that started the year no better than the Bengals and finished 15-1 for the NFL's best record.
Looking back at those two games against the Steelers, it's reasonable to say the Bengals are about three quarters as good, since they were in both of those games after three quarters. It was the fourth quarter in each case that made the difference.
On Oct. 3 at Pittsburgh, the Bengals led 17-14 through three quarters. Then the Steelers ran through them on a 13-play, 89-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. The Bengals in that fourth quarter managed only 30 yards and two first downs on two possessions, the later of which ended with an interception returned for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won 28-17.
On Nov. 21 at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals trailed Pittsburgh only 17-14 after three quarters. With the game there to be won on their own turf, the Bengals took the ball four times in the fourth period, losing yardage on three of those possessions for a net loss of 17 yards. The last possession ended in a safety, giving Pittsburgh the last points in its 19-14 win.
In each case, the Bengals' offense, their strong suit, disappeared at the end. Offensively, then, the Bengals need to learn how to win. Defensively, they still need to learn how to play.
But it's offseason now for the Bengals, and their chance to become a playoff team is at hand. Among their top priorities is to resolve their running back situation -- by signing Rudi Johnson to a new deal, bringing back Perry or finding a running back elsewhere.
But the real issue is their defense. In the real world, defense wins football games. Decisions about their defense in the next few months will determine if the Bengals next year are a hypothetical playoff team or a real one.