By Sam McPherson

It was 25 years ago that the Cincinnati Bengals last won an NFL playoff game, and to put that fact into proper context, the win came over the Houston Oilers. That’s right—it’s been that long since the Bengals won a postseason contest, losing all five January games they’ve played in since that fateful day: January 6, 1990.

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The 41-14 victory that day over the Oilers was a dominant one, and if the Cincinnati franchise wants to be taken seriously, it would do well to beat the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, January 4, 2015. The 1:05 p.m. ET game will go a long way towards determining historical perspective of the Marvin Lewis Era in the Queen City.

Since he became the head coach of the Bengals in 2003, Lewis has gotten the team to the postseason six times overall—including four straight years right now (and five of the last six). But Cincinnati hasn’t won any of those games, and the time has come to change that slide, even though Lewis has coached the team to Bengals success not seen since that fateful 1990 season.

Eventually, however, you have to win in the postseason to stay relevant, and that’s where Cincinnati exists right now: in that space between “legitimate” and “afterthought”.

Can the Bengals beat the Colts on Sunday? Sure. Anyone who saw the giant egg Indy laid against Dallas in Week 16 knows that team can be beaten. Andrew Luck is good, and he earned a huge playoff win last season at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. But with all due respect to Luck & Co., the Bengals are a slightly better team—and are much more overdue for some postseason success.

The Colts went 11-5 this year, while the Bengals posted a 10-5-1 mark. Indianapolis outscored their opponents by 89 points on the season, while Cincy managed just 21 more points than their foes. But ELO ratings have the Bengals as the better team, still, based on a longer track record of success in recent seasons. 

Common opponents this year included the New England Patriots, the Tennessee Titans, the Denver Broncos, the Houston Texans, the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Oh, and the two teams did play each other head-to-head, way back on October 19 in Indianapolis.

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So this playoff game will be a rematch of that contest the Colts won by a 27-0 score. Overall, the Bengals did play a harder schedule this year—but not by much. Indy went 2-4 against playoff teams this year, while Cincy posted a 3-4-1 mark against the the best competition. The mere fact that half of the Bengals’ schedule included postseason squads means Lewis will have his team ready for this game.

(By the way, both teams got hammered this year by the Patriots—the overwhelming AFC favorite.)

For the Bengals to win, they will need to utilize their running game to the utmost level: The Colts gave up 113.4 yards per game on the ground this year, and the more Cincy runs, the more they control the clock. And that keeps Luck off the field. Look for running back Jeremy Hill to carry the load for the Bengals offense.

And the Indy defense has a lot of holes, so Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton needs to maximize his advantage once Hill is controlling the running game: The Colts gave up an average of 39.2 points in their five losses. 

Defensively, Cincinnati needs to not only keep Luck off the field, it needs to hold in check Indy’s third-ranked offense. The Colts were held to a season-low seven points by the Dallas Cowboys on December 21; Indy ran for just one yard in that game, its season-worst effort. That seems to be the key to beating Luck and his friends: In their four of five losses, the Colts averaged just 34 yards on the ground.

There’s the recipe, then: run well and stop the run. It sounds familiar, for sure, and Lewis needs this win to legitimize the Bengals’ franchise and its postseason reputation. The question is whether or not it will happen this time—history is not on Cincinnati’s side.

For more Bengals news and updates, visit Bengals Central.

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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on a