CINCINNATI -- For nine excruciating years, offensive tackle Willie Anderson went home in January, fired up the grill, watched the NFL playoffs and fantasized about getting there someday.
Turns out, fantasy is nothing like reality.
The Cincinnati Bengals are back in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, feeling wholly out of place. Not even the weather is following the script -- above-average temperatures leading up to the first-round game today against Pittsburgh.
"It's a new feeling for us," said Anderson, who has lost 99 games in 10 Cincinnati seasons. "I always thought it would be freezing and zero degrees right now. That's how I always pictured the week of a playoff game in Cincinnati."
Their fans did, too. After 15 years without so much as one winning record, they were convinced that someplace would have to freeze over before the Bengals made the playoffs. When they finally made it, they got another surreal surprise.
The one team that dominated the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium this season is coming back, looking to do it again. The Steelers (11-5) had some of their best moments during a 27-13 victory on Oct. 23 -- a season-high 221 yards on the ground, an emphatic win over an upstart rival.
The Bengals won a 38-31 shootout in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4 -- Ben Roethlisberger's first game back from injuries -- to essentially win the AFC North.
"They won our division. It's redemption time," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "We get that opportunity, and we feel good because we won in Cincinnati."
Only 13 Bengals players have been to the playoffs, all with other teams.
"We've never been in this situation, a lot of guys on the team," receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "I don't know how I'm going to react, how I'm going to feel lining up in warmups and stretching."
The glare of the spotlight that has followed every move of Eli Manning's blossoming NFL career is about to get much brighter.
Today's wild-card game against the Carolina Panthers at Giants Stadium will be the latest milestone for the younger and (so far) less-accomplished quarterback of the Manning family, following his first victory, first 300-yard passing game and first NFC East title.
The Giants will host their first playoff game since 2000, when the won the NFC title.