CINCINNATI -- With a better grip on the shovel beside his locker than on his emotions, Cincinnati Bengals right offensive tackle Willie Anderson struggled to express what his team's 24-19 victory over Kansas City on Sunday meant to him and the franchise for which he has labored so long.
For awhile, Anderson -- an eight-year veteran and the longest-suffering Bengal in terms of continuous service -- didn't have the right words to describe the monumental win. No matter -- actions spoke louder than words here on Sunday afternoon, when the Bengals knocked the Chiefs from the ranks of the unbeaten and also nudged themselves into first place in the unleavened AFC North.
"You know how long I've been waiting for something like this around here?" Anderson asked rhetorically of the media throng that crowded around his locker stall. "Go back and look at the records and see what we've been through. There have been times, sure, when I wondered if it was all worth it. But a day like today, with this kind of victory, well, it just about leaves me speechless, you know?"
Many would say that the most compelling element of this game was the Chiefs' failure to reach the 10-0 mark, becoming the latest franchise to fall short in its pursuit of the Miami Dolphins' undefeated 1972 season. But given the forlorn history of the Cincinnati franchise, a team that hasn't even been at the .500 mark after 10 games since 1990, you've got to give the Bengals and coach Marvin Lewis their props.
Their record is just a modest 5-5, but Cincinnati now has won four of its last five outings, and currently holds a tiebreaker edge over Baltimore in the division. In fact, the Bengals' victory over the Chiefs is their third this year over a team that either led or was tied for its division lead when Cincinnati defeated them.
Cincinnati now goes on the road for three straight games -- at San Diego next Sunday, Pittsburgh (Nov. 30) and Baltimore (Dec. 7) -- but the Bengals will pack their bags a markedly more confident bunch.
Yipes, stripes? Yeah, the Bengals have rediscovered theirs.
Every emerging young team requires a signature victory, a galvanizing moment that it can look back to in retrospect once it has navigated "The Hump," and Sunday's upset over the NFL's premier team could be that shining moment.
"You know, a lot of (opponents) were probably looking at the schedule, and when they saw Cincinnati on it, they figured, 'Well, there's a win,' because that's second nature," said Bengals middle linebacker Kevin Hardy. "But for the next six weeks, they're going to see our name on the schedule and know they better come to play. Teams are going to look at us a lot different now, OK, and we're going to look at ourselves, different, too."
Before upending the Chiefs, the Bengals were viewed as a team that had gained much-needed stability and professionalism under Lewis' helm, but still a franchise that remained behind the learning curve. The win on Sunday, however, could mean Cincinnati has, at long last, turned the corner.
It came not only in front of a sellout crowd, but also a throaty group of locals that was able to drown out the noise from the Chiefs fans who had traveled here. For once, Paul Brown Stadium was transformed into a tough place for the visiting team, as Bengals fans were on their feet virtually all afternoon.
Fittingly, as Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna took the first of three straight kneel-downs that drained the final minute of play, a fan unfurled a banner from the upper reaches of the upper deck. It read: "Welcome back to The Jungle."
For the franchise, Lewis acknowledged the victory might have signaled a return to the NFL. Or at least the NFL as most fans have known it outside of this mostly-dreary precinct.
Less than a week later, the Bengals have unearthed themselves from their decade-long sinkhole.
"I told them all week long," explained Lewis, "to play with their heads down and to just keep working, not worry about the scoreboard, because the score will take care of itself. That is what you have to do to be a good team. Sometimes we get all caught up with that flashy thing up there, with all the numbers and colors, but you just can't worry too much about the scoreboard. We have good enough players that, if we just play, we'll be fine."
The Cincinnati players, despite a sputtering start to a game in which each of the first eight possessions ended with a punt, kept digging deep. There were obvious lapses in virtually every facet of the game -- the offense took a while to find its rhythm, special teams were miserable for the first 1˝ quarters, and the defense played too soft when the Bengals jumped to 11- and 12-point advantages -- but Cincinnati eventually found ways to make plays in every area.
For the third time in four weeks, tailback Rudi Johnson bludgeoned a defense for more than 100 yards, with a 165-yard performance that included runs of 38 and 54 yards. Jon Kitna, managing the pace nicely, didn't have any turnovers. The defense pressured Chiefs quarterback Trent Green much of the day, limited tailback Priest Holmes to 62 yards on the ground, and also stymied him on the swing passes that typically make the Kansas City attack click.
After surrendering 54 return yards to Chiefs star Dante Hall on their first two punts, the special teams held him to 76 yards on his next six returns combined.
No one made more huge plays for the Bengals, though, than oft-maligned wide receiver Peter Warrick, the fourth overall choice in the 2000 draft who has never measured up to that status. But on the field with Hall, the NFL's best miniature player, it was Warrick who proved to be the mightiest of the mites.
Early in the fourth quarter, Warrick returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown, breaking a tackle attempt by Lyle West and then cutting sharply inside the right seam and speeding to the end zone to push the Bengals' lead to 17-6. Then after Kansas City narrowed the edge to 17-12, on a lightning-quick 92-yard drive when Cincinnati dropped off into a lazy and uninspired zone coverage, Warrick struck again.
On the first scrimmage play following the Chiefs' score, with the Kansas City defensive unit clearly expecting the Bengals to play things cozy and pound Rudi Johnson inside, Kitna instead when up top. Warrick beat corner Eric Warfield on a deep post, caught the ball at the Chiefs' 40-yard line, spun out of a would-be tackle and scored for a 24-12 lead.
Just as Anderson had suffered for eight seasons, waiting for a signature moment, so had Warrick, whose profile has been diminished by Chad Johnson's emergence. But on this day, it seemed, when everyone dressed in stripes found at least 15 minutes of fame, the diminutive Warrick finally commanded more than his share of the spotlight.
"I don't know what other people thought," said Warrick, who had six receptions for a career-best 114 yards. "But we felt all week that we could take (the Chiefs), that we could hang with them, stare them right in the eyes and see who blinked first.
"Everybody in this (locker) room knows that a lot can still happen this year. But we're finally pointed in the right direction. We're digging ourselves out of the hole that we've been in for what seems like forever. For us, this can be a huge stepping stone, one that we can build on for the rest of the year."