12-9-04, 10:45 p.m.


Just think if Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson's running mate, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, had actually followed through back in college and taken his mother's maiden name.


It sounds like Patriots coach Bill Belichick is seeing double, anyway. He's fretting about Johnson and his bid to become the first Bengal ever to lead the NFL in catches, as well as Houshmandzadeh and Co., lining up against his patchwork quilt of a secondary that has allowed a dozen passes of at least 40 yards.

But Belichick and his physical defensive backs have never worried about what's in a name. Not since muscling the Super Bowl out of the hands of the heavily-favored Rams receivers three seasons ago in New Orleans.

Houshmandzadeh (171 yards) and Johnson (161) are coming off the biggest game by a duo of receivers in Bengals history, but they also could be walking into their most demanding game of the season.

OK, backup Je'Rod Cherry is the only guy in their secondary Sunday who was in New Orleans (cornerback Ty Law is out), and injuries might leave very few who outlasted Carolina to win it all last year with cornerbacks Tyrone Poole (doubtful with a knee) and Asante Samuel (questionable with a shoulder) dinged.

But they will play like a New England secondary always does: Physical enough to knock receivers off their routes and aggressive enough to frustrate guys off their games.

Plus, there are names like Pro Bowl enforcer-strong safety Rodney Harrison, cornerback Eugene Wilson, the AFC Defensive Player of the Month in September as a safety, and Randall Gay, an undrafted rookie free agent corner out of LSU that has impressed with two picks and last week's 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

The Pats rarely go man-to-man, usually mixing umbrella zones or some kind of confusing quarters coverage. But, just as rarely, does a receiver leave the line of scrimmage without getting pasted. Big question: Can the Bengals receivers that have caught eight balls of at least 40 yards this season run by the zones?

"There's a lot of opinion throughout the league that this new contact rule (defenders can't touch a receiver more than five yards off the line of scrimmage) came in because of the way they have played the last few years,' said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "That's a good style of defense. I would want to play that way if I was coaching defense. They're very aggressive, they try to re-route every receiver, try to get their hands on him, disrupt the timing, and they do it with their linebackers and their secondary guys."

Belichick can weep all he wants, but the Pats' 16 interceptions are tied for third in the NFL with the Bengals and Panthers and last season their 29 picks, 11 touchdown passes allowed, and 56.2 opponents' passer rating led the NFL.

But Belichick will tell you that New England has already given up 12 touchdown passes and all last year they allowed one pass longer than 50 yards. Johnson, who caught two 50s against Denver Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey a few weeks back, is tied for third in the NFL with five catches of 40 plus.

He's also caught a big fan in Belichick.

"I worked out Chad when he was coming out (of college) and was very impressed," Belichick said. "He was a little raw, but he's a lot more refined. Obviously, he's been well-coached. He does a real good job of not only utilizing his athletic ability like on those circus catches against Cleveland and Baltimore and all them, but he's able to beat press coverage, get off jams.

"He's a hard guy to get at the line of scrimmage, he's a hard guy to get down the field, and he's got real good quickness in and out of his cuts in the intermediate routes," Belichick said. "He's a real difficult guy to defend."

Johnson, whose 75 catches trail Tennessee's Derrick Mason and New Orleans' Joe Horn and their NFL-leading 76 catches, always seems to have a good friend in the secondary. This time it's Samuel, a Fort Lauderdale guy. Naturally, Johnson is convinced the tough stuff won't work on him.

"If you play physical, you're going to be playing into their hands," Johnson said. "That's backwards."

Receivers coach Hue Jackson thinks he's got a physical enough crew to hold up in such a scrum. The 6-1, 197-pound Houshmandzadeh has made leaping catches the past two weeks in which he has torn the ball away from the defender while climbing the ladder.

"Chad has done some of the same things, but it hasn't been as noticeable as T.J.," Jackson said. "This is a hitter's game if they're going to hit you. We've played against teams that want to knock you off the line. Baltimore. Dallas. I know Miami did that."

Miami held the pair to four catches for 58 yards, but Johnson caught eight balls for 74 yards against the Cowboys, and in two games against the Ravens they combined for 35 catches and 547 yards (Johnson 18 for 260 and Houshmandzadeh 17 for 287). Kelley Washington, the other wideout that concerns Belichick, had five catches for 58 yards in the first game against Baltimore.

The coaches also know they have to use some finesse.

"You have to beat them with your quickness in terms of route running and getting open," Bratkowski said. "You can't let them get their hands on you, or let you make contact with them and you can't try to be more physical than them because that's what they want to accomplish in disrupting routes and timing. You can't get frustrated and you have to be elusive."

Johnson and Houshmandzadeh are just 448 yards from becoming the most prolific 1-2 receiving punch in Bengals history. More than Isaac Curtis-Cris Collinsworth. More than Eddie-Brown Tim McGee. More than Carl Pickens-Darnay Scott. More than Johnson-Peter Warrick.

"When they've got those three guys on the field," said Belichick of the matchup that should supply the game's fireworks, "that's a lot of firepower."

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