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Bengals out to clean up image

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GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- In 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals were a Cinderella team. They'd gone from 4-12 to 11-5 in a two-season span before a lamentable playoff loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh.

In 2006, Cinderella drank cheap wine from her glass slipper, threw up on her dress and got pulled over in her pumpkin at 3:30 in the morning.

The Bengals went from 11-5 back to 8-8, their myriad of offseason transgressions making them a national punch line.

Now they've backed themselves into a corner. Now, they have to either get good or get gone.

Since December 2005, the Bengals had 14 arrests from 10 players. Nine Bengal arrests came in a nine-month span in 2006. There have been three more so far in 2007. The worst offenders -- wide receiver Chris Henry (four separate arrests) and linebacker Odell Thurman are currently suspended. Henry's gone for the first eight games of the season; Thurman is suspended for the year.

"You don't like to think that what happened in the off-season hurt but it took a toll on us," the Bengals' classy wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "You weren't thinking about (the off-field issues) when you were playing the game but we were so tired of always answering questions about it. Those are questions that do not pertain to who you're playing, do not pertain to what you're doing that week. It took a toll. I think it's over and time to move on."

Said middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks, "It's time to grow up."

Last year, the Bengals started 3-0, dropped to 4-5, revived to 8-5 then face-planted, losing their final three games to finish 8-8.

It was as if they didn't know how to handle success. And, given the off-field behavior of some of their players, it may not be a leap to say they were an immature team overall.

"There's a little bit to that," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "Everyone thinks we just go great guns and we've got all this (offensive talent). But what do you do when the game's on the line and when you're supposed to win? That's how great teams are evaluated. What you do when it's time to play. When it's nut-cutting time, what do you do? That's the judge of a great football team."

In one of the great games of 2006, the Bengals let up when they should have dropped their heel on an opponent's neck.

Leading 28-7 at halftime over an injury-gutted San Diego team on Nov.12, the Bengals allowed 42 second half points to lose 49-41 and fall to 4-5.

"You get a team down like that, don't give up a big touchdown on defense, don't turn the ball over on offense. Go back to doing the things that got you the lead. Run the ball proud, make first downs and stop teams on third down.

"Sometimes you have to go through some growth and maturity," Lewis said. "Hopefully, you get kicked and learn once. But that is part of it. You need to understand the value of small things and when you get your opportunity, step to the plate and knock it out of the park."

The Bengals enter 2007 in better shape than they did 2006 now that quarterback Carson Palmer is fully recovered from the devastating knee injury suffered early in the aforementioned playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Though he played every snap but one in 2006, it was widely held that Palmer didn't have the strength and timing necessary to perform at his normal level early last season. During the second week of camp at Georgetown College in Kentucky, he showed that, picking apart the Bengals' first defense during a full-contact intrasquad game on a steamy Friday night.

With Houshmanzadeh and Chad Johnson forming one of the league's best wideout tandems, a capable offensive line and a budding two-back offense with veteran Rudi Johnson and rookie Kenny Irons, the Bengals have -- as usual -- an impressive array of weapons.

"We're clicking," Houshmandzadeh said. "The defense is faster and they know what they're doing. We added guys like Kenny Irons. I'm excited."

"To a man we were not satisfied with the way we finished (2006)," Lewis said. "Players, coaches, anyone. We got off to a decent start to they year that put us in position at the end of the year to control our destiny. That's what you want to do each year in the NFL. At that point we had the opportunities to make plays and finish things well and we didn't get it done."

Fortunately for Lewis, he's still in town to lament the things gone bad from the previous season. If things don't improve in 2007, he may not have that luxury next summer.

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