'03 sked challenges Lewis early

4-3-03, 1:30 p.m. Updated:
4-3-03, 8 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis has Mike Shanahan's book on his shelf. As it turns out, he is going to write the first chapter of his head coaching career against Shanahan's Broncos in a classic NFL opener pitting an offensive genius against a defensive mastermind at Paul Brown Stadium on Sept. 7.

The NFL released its 2003 regular-season schedule Thursday and now Lewis' overhauled defense is preparing for Shanahan's new quarterback, Jake Plummer, and a scheme that produced nine victories and the third most yards in the NFL last season.

Lewis has read Shanahan's book, "Think Like a Champion," and he hopes to incorporate some of the advice in his rebuilding effort that begins with a stretch of five straight games against teams that won at least eight games in 2002.

"Great book. I don't have it here, it's still back (in Maryland)," Lewis said. "It's about how to be successful and I got a lot out of it. I've got a lot of respect for him and what he's done. It's a challenge for us."

Lewis' rookie season doesn't get any easier against a slate of teams that went 129-125-2 last season for a .505 winning percentage. That's not far off the .537 percentage that the Bengals' 2002 foes compiled last year, which stands as the league's toughest schedule last season.

But since the NFL has now gone to a rotating schedule, the Bengals don't get a soft sell after a 2-14 season. After the opener, the Bengals face three straight playoff teams before the Oct. 5 reunion in Buffalo with Dick LeBeau and Takeo Spikes against a team that beat them, 27-9, in last season's finale.

Then they finish the season with a six-game run against teams that won at least seven games in 2002 and four of them on the road. The schedule doesn't feature Lewis' first team in any prime-time TV dates, and they play all Sunday afternoon games. All PBS games are at 1 p.m., and the season ends here Dec. 28 in what could be a key AFC North game against the Browns:

Sept. 7 _ Denver, 1 p.m (all Cincinnati times)

Sept. 14 _ at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.

Sept. 21 _ Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

Sept. 28 _ at Cleveland, 1 p.m.

Oct. 5 _ at Buffalo, 1 p.m.

Oct. 12 _ bye

Oct. 19 _ Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Oct. 26 _ Seattle, 1 p.m.

Nov. 2 _ at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.

Nov. 9 _ Houston, 1 p.m.

Nov. 16 _ Kansas City, 1 p.m.

Nov. 23 _ at San Diego, 4:15 p.m.

Nov. 30 __ at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

Dec. 7 _ at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Dec. 14 _ San Francisco, 1 p.m.

Dec. 21 _ at St. Louis, noon.

Dec. 28 _ Cleveland, 1 p.m.

"Looking at the schedule when it comes out and deciding which games are going to be what went out five years ago," Lewis said, alluding to recent improbable Super Bowl champions such as St. Louis, New England and his own Ravens. "That's why you have to play the same every week."

The Bengals should have a pretty good idea where they stand by the Oct. 12 bye after opening against a Denver team that went 9-7 and playing a Buffalo team that features LeBeau, their former head coach, and Spikes, their former leading tackler who left in free agency. In between, they play at AFC champion Oakland, host AFC North champ Pittsburgh, and then travel to play a Browns' team that won a play-off spot last year at 9-7.

"We're fortunate to have the opportunity to open and close the season at home," Lewis said. "And we've been presented with the chance to earn respect right away. Our first five games are against some very tough opposition."

They've never won in Oakland in eight tries, and the last time they beat the Raiders on the road was during the 1988 Super Bowl season. They haven't won in California since they beat the Chargers in San Diego in 1990, and they go back to San Diego this year on Nov. 23.

"So now we've got something to shoot for," said Lewis, who also downplayed the prime-time vacuum. "Those are the kind of things you have to go out and earn."

This year's game in San Diego starts a three-game road swing that also takes them to Lewis' former coaching haunts in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Bengals are the only team in the NFL this season to play three straight road games, another challenge for Lewis as he tries to reverse the 11-season trend in which the Bengals have been the worst road team in the NFL with a .205 percentage.

The Bengals last played three straight road games in 1991, when they lost in Dallas, Buffalo, and Houston. Usually, it was because of a possible conflict with the baseball playoffs in old Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field.

But Lewis knows what it's about. When he was an assistant coach in Baltimore, the Ravens went on the road three straight times in three different seasons, the last time during the Super Bowl championship run of 2000.

"No big deal. The trips are short. Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Not very far," Lewis said.

Indeed, the club's West Coast excursions are comfortably apart. There are seven weeks between the Oakland and Arizona trips, and three weeks between Arizona and San Diego.

They come off the road to play the 49ers Dec. 14, fitting since it's the 15th anniversary of the season that ended with the Bengals 34 seconds away from a Super Bowl victory against San Francisco.

That's a nasty six-game stretch to end it. Not only are four games on the road, but they also play teams with a combined record of 51-44-1.

But the most scrutinized part of the season for Lewis will no doubt be the first half, and he indicated the first five games may very well set the tone. It's another trend he must reverse. The past four Bengals' coaches have combined for a record of 17-74 in September and October since 1991.

"No matter what you do," Lewis said, "is try to get a quick start. This is no different."

It's the first time the Bengals have played the Broncos since running back Corey Dillon strafed Denver for a NFL record 278 yards in a 31-21 win at PBS Oct. 22, 2000. At the time, the Broncos were ranked second in the NFL against the rush. Denver is going to bring last year's No. 4 rush unit to PBS, after recently adding free-agent Daryl Gardener, a big-play tackle who worked for Lewis in Washington last season.

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