9-29-01, 7:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
They are 2-0, coming off their biggest victory in a decade, and one win away from having nearly an 80 percent chance of ending their 11-year playoff drought.
But Corey Dillon and the Bengals sense they are still about the only ones who believe.
"I think people think it was a fluke," said Dillon of last Sunday's 21-10 win over the Super Bowl champs. "But if we can somehow come out with a win on the road against a 2-0 team, they'll know we're for real. We get a chance to make a real statement. We're the hot teams."
Check out the Sunday morning shows and the Bengals are getting more air time than the political pundits. There is ESPN's Countdown to Kickoff at 11 a.m., and CBS' "NFL Today," pre-game show at 12:30 p.m. And peruse "The New York Times," and there the Bengals-Chargers is the Game of the Week instead of the preview for the 2002 Draft's No. 1 pick.
"It's one of our more significant games in awhile," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "For a long time we've been the one-star game."
And middle linebacker Brian Simmons read the 78.4 percent stat somewhere. Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan unearthed the fact that since 1991, 40 of the 51 teams that
went 3-0 made the playoffs.
Still, Simmons thinks the importance of this game goes beyond 3-0.
"It's more of a character game," Simmons said. "I don't think the record is as important as measuring how this team responds after a big win and how it responds on the road."
Tight end Tony McGee is also curious how this team takes to the road. The nine-year veteran has never won a game in California. In fact, the Bengals are 0-7 in the Golden State since the playoff year of 1990 and they haven't won in the Pacific time zone since beating Seattle seven years ago.
Simmons agrees with the assertion that his previous three Bengals' teams had a tendency to play tight in similar situations, particularly during key parts of games.
"Those teams were loose, but the problem was that looseness affected the way they worked," Simmons said. "This team is loose, but it doesn't affect practice or preparation."
ALMOST 20 YEARS AGO TODAY:** First of all, Louis Breeden can't believe it's been 20 years. And secondly, he asks any Bengal who gets an interception in the end zone Sunday in San Diego "to take a knee so I can at least have something left."
Back on Nov. 8, 1981 in what was then Jack Murphy Stadium, Breeden, the Bengals' left cornerback, had nothing left after he picked off Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts and went 102 yards with the longest interception return in Bengals' history.
"When I got into the end zone, I didn't want anybody jumping on me or pounding me," Breeden recalled this week. "I just told everybody to stay the heck away from me because I just wanted to get back to the bench and rest because I knew we were going back out."
Breeden's defense had a stout day against the
Chargers' aerial circus in providing a 40-17 victory that was one of the biggest in Cincinnati history. The two teams
met two months later for the AFC championship in Cincinnati's minus-59 wind chill and the Bengals prevailed.
"We had so much confidence going into that championship game because of what we did to them out there in November," Breeden said. "Holding the Chargers to 17 points was like a shutout. No matter how cold it was, we felt like we would have beaten them anywhere. We did it when it was nice and warm."
Breeden, whose position coach was current head coach Dick LeBeau, said the Bengals disguised zone coverage with a bump-and-run look to set up his play. Breeden was on the slot receiver, but read the out pattern: "I just stepped in front and it was history. Some guy had a hand on me in the first five yards, but no one was really chasing me. Except (receiver) Wes Chandler, but he never got within five yards."
Breeden, who had 33 career interceptions in 10 seasons, still gets a little tired when he sees a shot of Jack Murphy (now Qualcomm) Stadium because he always remembers. But he'll be fresh Sunday when he watches.
"Isn't it great? The retired players are real happy," Breeden said of the Bengals' 2-0 start. "I know I am because you're a Bengal for life. The guy I'm happiest for is Dick LeBeau. These guys have really responded to him."
MATCHUPS: Bengals RB Corey Dillonpits his two Pro Bowls vs.Chargers OLB Junior Seau's* 1. *Bengals SS JoJuan Armour* tris to contain the scrambles of Cargers QB Doug Flutie. Benals LG Matt O'Dwyer, who needs another Game Ball effort, and Bengals RG Mike Goff need to make room on the run against * Charges DTs John Parrella and Jamal Williams* and their unit that allowed just three yards per rush last season in former Bengals assistant Joe Pascale's scheme.
Cincinnati's outside receivers, Bengals WRs Darnay Scott and Chad Johnson have to challenge old friend, Chargers CB Ryan McNeil. Bengals PR Peter Warrick looks for his first big return of the season in a head-to-head showdown with the NFL leader, Chargers PR Tim Dwight.
DILLON VS. SEAU: In the last three years, Seau's defense has either been first or second against the run. With Seau and to a certain extent strong safety Rodney Harrison, freelancing the other nine guys play extremely disciplined for Pascale, the Chargers defensive coordinator since leaving the Bengals as linebackers coach after the 1996 season.
You never know for sure where Seau is going to line up. The only certainty is he's going to the Hall of Fame, so Dillon may also have to pick him up on some blitzes. Last week, Dillon failed to get blitzing Baltimore linebacker Jamie Sharper and it resulted in one of the Ravens' two sacks.
ARMOUR VS. FLUITE: Armour figures to get his most significant playing time since last season's finale, when the Bengals used him to shadow athletic Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb on third down. Flutie won't run it as much as McNabb (held to 20 yards on four carries against the Bengals), but Armour can't let him run around long enough and allow the Chargers receivers to make moves on the Bengals' secondary. In the first two games, Flutie has rushed 10 times for 15 yards with a long of 11. **
O'DWYER, GOFF VS. PARRELLA, WILLIAMS:Pascale has about half of his starters intact from the '98 defense that led the NFL and led the league against the run in '98 and '99. The 6-3, 300-pound Parrella, 31, has been a constant as the only Charger to start all 66 games since the '97 opener. He's also coming off a career-high seven sacks and had one last week. It's an intriguing matchup with the 6-5, 310-pound O'Dwyer, who got a game ball in last week's win against the Ravens.
SCOTT, JOHNSON VS. MCNEIL:** Remember McNeil? After signing a contract with Cleveland in 1999 that allowed him to get traded to any team but Cincinnati, McNeil got beat by Carl Pickens for a touchdown on a throw from Akili Smith on the last play from scrimmage that gave Cincinnati a win over the Browns that season.
Well, McNeil has surfaced in San Diego as the NFL interceptions leader with three after two last week. But with Alex Molden out, Scott and Johnson also have to test rookie Tay Cody (who had an interception last week) and Davis Sanchez, a free-agent who was an all-CFL player last year in Montreal.
Johnson, the Bengals' second-round pick, doesn't have a catch yet. He's been hearing about it from cousin Keyshawn Johnson, Tampa Bay's wide receiver.
"He wants to know if I want to borrow some of his catches," Chad Johnson said. "I'll be all right. I'm chilling, taking my time. We've got a lot of weapons and my time will come."
WARRICK VS. DWIGHT: In his first game with the Chargers on Opening Day, Dwight was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week with an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Redskins that was the third touchdown return of his career and the second on a punt. Meanwhile, Warrick fumbled a punt on his own 17 last week and has returned just three for a long of four yards as he looks to find last season's magic against Jacksonville.
Warrick has mentioned to special teams coach Al Roberts about using two blockers on the outside instead of one, but he says he can still be dangerous with just one.
Dwight has Warrick-type numbers from scrimmage with a touchdown run of 16 yards and a catch of 78 yards that is the bulk of his team-leading 119 receiving yards. Warrick has 10 catches, but none longer than nine yards.
NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for the weekend, including 38 and 5. The first is the age of Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie. The second is the age of Bengals DE Justin Smith when Flutie's Hail Mary beat the University of Miami for Boston College.
0-7 _ Bengals' record in California since a 34-31 win over the Rams in Los Angeles on Oct. 7, 1990.
3-2 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's record against the Chargers.
6 _ Turnovers generated by the Bengals in two games.
5 _ Games it took the Bengals to get six turnovers last season.
44 _ Points the Bengals have scored in eight quarters this season.
26_ Quarters it took the Bengals to score 44 points last season.
27 _ Points Bengals have scored in the third quarter this season.
41 _ Points the Bengals scored in the third quarter last season.
20 _ Running backs who have gained 100 yards in their first NFL game since the 1970 merger. The Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson became the 20th three weeks ago.
25 _ Games the Chargers and Bengals have played since 1968 with San Diego holding a 15-10 edge.
28-53_Record of Bengals and Chargers since Opening Day of 1996.
5,055 _ Corey Dillon's career rushing yards, joining former Chargers James Brooks and Pete Johnson as the 5,000 Bengals.
SOLEMN MOMENT: Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal was overwhelmed by Thursday's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for his close friend, Naval Lt. Comdr. Otis "Vince," Tolbert, a victim of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.
Neal was a pallbearer while six horses drew the caisson bearing Tolbert's flag-draped coffin to a grave from which the Pentagon can be seen.
"It's less than a mile from the Pentagon and from the
gravesite you can see the hole where the plane went in," Neal said. "There was a 21-gun salute from cannons, he got the purple heart, and there was a letter from the president. It's always tough to put a friend to rest." . . .
This is Dick LeBeau's first trip to the West Coast as a head coach, which spawned some stories about similar trips he had as a player and teams were flying prop planes. One trip took the Lions 14 hours through a headwind and a refueling stop in Denver.
That was back when Detroit was in the Western Conference and played both the Rams in Los Angeles and
the 49ers in San Francisco. To make it easier, teams would play one of them, stay a week on the Coast, and then play the other. Some Lions like LeBeau used the extra time to do some stunt work in Hollywood.
But there will be no such free time on this trip. LeBeau won't do anything special to accommodate the time change, choosing to stick as close as possible to a schedule on Cincinnati time. . .
Little Flower of St. Therese School in Cincinnati's Mt. Airy neighborhood will get a $5,000 Staples gift certificate along with a visit from LeBeau after he was named the "Staples Coach of the Week," off the 21-10 win over the Ravens. . .
MLB Brian Simmons, RB Brandon Bennett and LT John Jackson took a few calls in the Bengals ticket office during Thursday's lunch. When Simmons called to thank a man for buying some tickets and introduced himself, his wife told Simmons, "He's not here now, but if you call back after 5, you can get him then." Simmons politely said he probably wouldn't be able to get back.
The ticket office reports sales have been brisk for the next two home games that aren't sold out: Oct. 21 against Chicago and Nov. 18 against Tennessee. . .
The Bengals won't know if backup FS Darryl Williams will miss his first game ever in six seasons as a Bengal until right before Sunday's game. Williams, who had a cortisone shot for his mid-foot sprain on Thursday, has only missed three games in his 10-year career and those came with Seattle in 1999.