Cincinnati The usual December question around these parts - how low can the Bengals go? - has been replaced by one from a bygone era.
This year, everyone is wondering: How deep can the Bengals go ... in the playoffs?
At 9-3, the Bengals are all but certain to win the AFC North. They're two games ahead of Pittsburgh and can clinch their first playoff appearance since 1990 with a victory Sunday over Cleveland and a Steelers loss to the Bears.
Even if the Steelers win the rest of the way, the Bengals can clinch the title by beating the Browns (4-8) and the Lions (4-8) in the next two weeks. Cincinnati would have the tiebreaker over the Steelers.
"You ride it as hard as you can, as fast as you can, and see where we get at the end of things," defensive end Justin Smith said.
There are three reasons to think that Cincinnati's long-awaited return to the playoffs could be more than a one-and-done deal.
1. The offense has Carson.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has surpassed all expectations, developing into one of the NFL's best passers in only his second season running the offense. He leads the league in completion rate (68.7 percent) and touchdowns (26) and is second to Peyton Manning with a 106.6 passer rating.
These days, he resembles Manning in more than just the numbers. The Bengals have relied on their no-huddle offense in the last three games. With Palmer calling plays at the line the way Manning does, Cincinnati has piled up 37, 42 and 38 points against respected defenses - Indianapolis, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Even with screaming Steelers fans doing their best to disrupt Palmer's calls, the Bengals stayed with the no-huddle last Sunday and prevented Pittsburgh from substituting an extra defensive back or pass rusher.
The Steelers were coming off a 26-7 loss to Indianapolis and had practiced against the no-huddle for two weeks, so they were well-prepared. It didn't matter - they gave up 30 points for the first time all season.
Even the best defense can have problems keeping up with an unfamiliar, fast-paced approach.
"We're tired, but we always know that they're three times more tired than we are because they're chasing the football," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "It speeds the game up."
2. The defense has a craving for turnovers.
The defense held the Bengals back the last two years, forcing them to settle for 8-8 finishes. This year, it has found a way to overcome its shortcomings.
The Bengals lead the NFL with 26 interceptions, 10 more than anyone else and eight shy of the franchise record. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal leads the league with eight, rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman has five, and cornerback Tory James has four.
The defense gives up a lot of yards (ranked 28th this week) and a lot of points (105 in the last three games), but has gotten turnovers that set up the high-scoring offense.
"For us this year, it seems they've been coming in bunches," linebacker Brian Simmons said. "Once one happens, two or three more are soon to follow. For whatever reason, that's kind of how it's going for us this year."
Which brings up the third point:
3. The tiger stripes have good karma this year.
The Bengals have gotten plenty of breaks - and make no mistake, those matter in how things turn out.
A couple of significant injuries can knock a team out of contention. Think Pittsburgh isn't wondering where it would be if Ben Roethlisberger hadn't messed up both knees and the thumb on his passing hand? What could Green Bay have done if Brett Favre didn't lose his top two running backs and three receivers to injuries?
The Bengals have been fortunate that way. Safety Madeiu Williams has been the most significant loss on defense. The offense has stayed intact, playing through the bruises and strains that crop up with every team.