When the NFL owners locked out the players last spring, what seemed like the end was just the beginning for the Cincinnati Bengals.
With no offseason workouts, a shortened training camp and a roster depleted of former stars like quarterback Carson Palmer and receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals appeared headed for another 4-12 season, or possibly worse.
But on Sunday afternoon in Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals (9-6) host the Ravens (11-4), Cincinnati is one win away from becoming the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs.
If the Ravens win, they can at least secure a No. 2 seed, a first-round bye and host a divisional semifinal. If the Bengals win, they would travel to No. 3 Houston for a first-round game.
"We've got an opportunity to do something that almost nobody in the business thought we could do," said Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth.
According to Bengals coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, the seeds for Cincinnati's turnaround were planted during the lockout. That's when some of the veterans started organizing team drills, practices and workouts.
Gone were the prima donnas like Ochocinco and Owens who would have complained. Instead, the grunt guys like Whitworth and nose tackle Domata Peko took over, and the rest followed.
"The lockout helped create a new atmosphere around here," Lewis said. "The big, tough guys started running the show, they took over the team. There are no more clique-ish groups in football than the offensive and defensive lines, and they stepped up and everyone else just rallied behind them. They have become the fiber of the team."
But it's just not that simple.
Cincinnati is winning with two rookies — quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green — playing prominent roles. Green, a first-round pick out of Georgia, was expected to contribute right away, and the kid has been the total package with 63 catches for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns.
"He was good early — so unassuming, so talented — from the very first time he stepped on the field," Lewis said. "Usually you get to see these guys in minicamp and the various offseason camps, but there were no opportunities. But from the first day in training camp, you could tell he was special."
Dalton has been even more impressive. Quarterback might be the hardest position to learn in all of sports. Few rookies challenge for a playoff spot in their first season. Few rookies taken with the No. 35 overall pick have looked as poised or thrown for 3,166 yards and 20 touchdowns.
He doesn't play like a rookie.
"He's so far ahead of me when I was a rookie, it's not even funny," former Bengals quarterback and CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said earlier this year. "After my rookie year [general manager] Paul Brown and [coach] Sam Wyche were going into the offseason looking at each other cross-eyed."
Dalton had Lewis' head spinning about a month or so before the draft.
"I watched the way our coaches worked with him at TCU and how he threw to his receivers and backs," Lewis said. "He stood firm, like these guys had been coaching him for years. I could see it was a good match. He understood what we were trying to teach. He could recite and then execute it."
Dalton will give the Ravens problems. The Ravens don't have anyone who can match up with Green and Cincinnati has another talented receiver in Jerome Simpson and tight end Jermaine Gresham. The Ravens won the first meeting between the two teams this season, 31-24, as Cincinnati was minus-two in turnover differential and Dalton threw three interceptions.
"It has been a big year for me and for this team, and it's our job to find a way to get this last step," said Dalton, who has been sacked 24 times this season, third fewest in the NFL.
Another major difference has been the Bengals defense. Lewis noted that there are five former first-round draft picks starting. The Bengals get pressure with their front four of Robert Geathers, Frostee Rucker, Geno Atkins and Peko. Cincinnati has 44 sacks this season, third best in the league.
They use a 4-3 scheme and play a lot of two-deep coverage, which has given the Ravens problems. Plus, the Bengals know that anytime they play Baltimore, it's a big game for Lewis, who won a Super Bowl here with the Ravens in 2000.
"If they lose, they know they don't want to be around me," Lewis said with a laugh.
Lewis still has a fondness for Baltimore. He often comes back during the offseason as a guest speaker for companies or colleges. He likes what the Ravens have done by adding rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith and using tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. He says the Ravens' front seven on defense is one of the best in the NFL.
But the Bengals have only one goal now. They've won six of their past nine meetings against the Ravens.
"I think it would be huge," said Bengals running back Cedric Benson. "You can only imagine what [a win Sunday] would do to some egos around here. But I think as far as the young guys, the team as a whole, the momentum and the bonding that it will actually do for the guys, for the team, is hard to even put in words. This is a team that has had a lot of adversity, wasn't expected to do much this year. It would just be kind of a good capper, a great building block to the future."