CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals are taking one of the longest streaks of playoff futility in NFL history back to the scene of their latest postseason loss.
A year older, they're hoping they've grown up enough to pull off a significant breakthrough.
Cincinnati (10-6) opens the postseason Saturday at Houston (12-4), where the young Bengals imploded during a 31-10 loss in the first round last year. Quarterback Andy Dalton was a rookie then and threw three interceptions that turned a close game into a blowout.
The drubbing kept the Bengals without a playoff victory since 1990, the league's longest current streak and tied for the ninth longest in NFL history, according to STATS LLC. They beat the Houston Oilers 41-14 at Riverfront Stadium in a first-round game in 1990, then lost to the Raiders in Los Angeles.
They've been back to the playoffs only three other times since then, losing lopsided games to the Steelers in 2005, to the Jets in 2009 and to the Texans last season. Winning in Houston would be a huge step for the franchise.
"No doubt," coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think our guys realize that just being in the playoffs is not what we're here for."
Their second straight season as a wild card team represents a major step by itself. It's only the second time in franchise history that they've made the playoffs in back-to-back years. The other time was 1981-82.
"This young team expected to be in the playoffs," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "In a year where we expected to be in the playoffs, we did."
They've got a few things in their favor the second time around.
The Bengals were taken aback by the loud crowd at Reliant Stadium a year ago, caught up in the Texans' first playoff appearance.
"I think the atmosphere is the biggest thing," safety Chris Crocker said. "It's like wow, Houston, that was crazy, that was nuts. I think guys saw that. I ain't never seen an atmosphere like that — regular season game, playoff game, never. That was just, wow. But once it gets going, it gets going."
Cincinnati lost the 2005 and 2009 playoff games at Paul Brown Stadium. Last year was the first time that most of their players were on the road for a postseason game. It'll seem more familiar this time — 38 of those players are still on the roster.
"The difference is we know the atmosphere from when we went down there last year," Lewis said. "(It was) the first time we had a playoff game on the road for any of the people here."
Dalton, who grew up in suburban Houston, has learned how to win pressure games in his second season. Dalton's interceptions turned last year's game into a blowout, starting with J.J. Watt's 29-yard return for a touchdown.
If Dalton can avoid mistakes, the Bengals will have a chance to end that drought.
"We just have to take care of our business," Dalton said. "If we do that, all of that stuff will take care of itself. We've done some good things. We went 10-6 this year and had a good year. We made the playoffs again. That was our goal going into it, and now our goal is to make a run at it."
The biggest change for Houston is Matt Schaub will be at quarterback instead of T.J. Yates. The biggest change for the Bengals is their defense, which set a club record with 51 sacks and has steadied them down the stretch.
In wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore the last two weeks, the defense scored two touchdowns — Leon Hall and Carlos Dunlap returned interceptions — while the offense managed only one.
"We are probably playing better this year than we have been in the past heading into the playoffs," said Mike Zimmer, in his fifth season as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator. "This defense is salty right now."
Unlike last season, the Bengals head into the playoffs with a lot of confidence. They lost three of their last five games last year, getting the final wild card because other teams lost even more. This time, they pulled out of a 3-5 start by winning seven of their last eight games, one of the best closing stretches in team history.
It was only the third time they'd won seven of their last eight games. They won their final seven in 1970 to reach the playoffs for the first time. They won seven of the last eight in 1981 and went on to play in their first Super Bowl, where they lost to San Francisco.
"It gets us going in on a big hot streak, that's for sure," defensive tackle Geno Atkins said. "We are more mature this year. It's also not our first trip, so we can learn from our mistakes from last time as well."
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