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The first indication of a change came in the summer, when Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis agreed to allow his Bengals on "Hard Knocks," a cable TV production that shows the rigors of training camp but also the comic side.

Talk about a gamble. In previous seasons, watching the Bengals was like watching sequels to "The Longest Yard."

"I thought we were mature enough to handle it; at least we had 79 of us, and one maybe," said Lewis, the one referring to star wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. "I thought it was a good opportunity for people to get to know us.

"I think they got to know Chad, that he really is a good guy just having some fun," Lewis said. "They know that he just talks to talk, and that if you swing back at him, Chad is going to duck."

The Bengals (5-2) are a loose and confident bunch these days. They should be. They are in first place in the AFC North, having beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) and Sunday's opponent, the Ravens (4-3).

Recent history shows that the Bengals either start or finish strong but implode at other points during the season. This season, though, appears to be different.

The Bengals are solid on offense and defense because they can run the ball and stop the run. Lewis, in his sixth season in Cincinnati, appears to be on solid ground, too. He is one of the few NFL coaches allowed to rebuild with the same team twice.

According to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, Lewis has changed a lot from the time he left Baltimore as the Ravens' defensive coordinator after the 2001 season.

"Marvin and I spent a lot of time together in Naples, Fla., on the competition committee, and I think Marvin has matured to the point where less is better, simple is better," Newsome said. "He had to basically endure a year [last season] without having Carson Palmer, and I think he learned to refine things and is OK with what they did.

"I think Marvin's football IQ has grown immensely, where he thoroughly understands the games in all three phases, and he has decided on what kind of player he wants and what players he can live with and live without," Newsome said.

Let's simplify that: Lewis has always given players a second chance. Because he felt compelled to build the Bengals fast, he took a gamble on some troubled rookies in the draft who have come back to hurt him.

Lewis has moved on. He is still gambling with some players who have struggled elsewhere, but they are older and have reformed, players such as defensive tackle Tank Johnson, running back Cedric Benson and safety Roy Williams.

He now has a good blend of young players - such as linebackers Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers, defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph - to go along with veterans Ochocinco, Palmer, Benson and Williams.

"We've gotten rid of some fringe players who thought it was all about athleticism, and we now have a team that has taken ownership of itself," Lewis said. "We have guys who can self-lead and fix problems. We have guys like [former Raven] Keith Washington and [current Raven] Kelly Gregg, guys you can count on."

Lewis also went back to an old philosophy. Cincinnati has traditionally been a franchise with a lot of prima donna offensive players. The Bengals had flash but very little substance.

This season, the Bengals have the No. 9 rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 127.7 yards. It's the perfect complement to Palmer. On defense, the Bengals are allowing only 88 yards rushing a game, fifth best in the NFL. Besides struggling to run, teams can't pass, either, because Joseph and Hall are two of the best cornerbacks in the league.

"I learned the lesson a long time ago but had to go back to it," said Lewis, a former assistant with the Steelers. "You have to be able to stop the run and run the ball to be a playoff team. Each year, there is always one team that defies that, but they usually don't go that far into the playoffs.

"At the end of last season, I thought we had to get a running back, retool our offensive line, develop a pass rush and get some playmakers on defense," he said. "I still have that list on the board, but overall, I think we've accomplished those things."

There is one other improvement. Palmer is looking like the old Palmer, before he suffered a severe knee injury against the Steelers in a 2006 playoff game.

Palmer has completed 140 of 227 passes for 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is moving well in the pocket, showing a confidence he didn't display the previous two seasons.

With a healthy Palmer, a new attitude and an old philosophy, the Bengals appear to be for real. The Ravens found that out several weeks ago, when Cincinnati pulled a 17-14 upset here in Baltimore.

"Marvin has done a nice job with that team," Newsome said. "They're playing well."

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