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12-16-04, 4:25 a.m.


No question in head coach Marvin Lewis' mind. His team may have been 8-6 a year ago at this time compared to 6-7 now, but he believes this team is a lot better than his first one. And the improvement physically and mentally is symbolized by wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a guy who has won Lewis' respect this season by "taking three of the cheapest shots I have seen in the NFL this year." No longer can he call him "China Doll," in a season the Bengals haven't played soft in the stretch so far.

The Bengals have put together a 3-2 record in their last five games against defenses ranked in the top 12, four in the top nine, and lost to the two best teams in football (the Steelers and Patriots) by a combined 12 points.

"We're a lot better. We're sounder," Lewis said after practice Wednesday. "We understand what to do better. We're more efficient at moving the football. We're playing better on defense. We tackle better. We do a lot of things a lot better."

Lewis only has to look at his offense now against this Bills team and the one that played them 25 games ago on Oct. 5, 2003 in Buffalo in a 22-16 loss in the only overtime loss in the Lewis era. The Bengals didn't have a 100-yard performer and scored just one touchdown. The difference between now and then, Lewis said, "Is incredible."

Which may be the only way to describe Houshmandzadeh. After making no catches in two games last year in a season he couldn't convince the Bengals his injured hamstring had healed well enough to play, he's 20 yards from passing Peter Warrick's career high of 819 receiving yards. He has set the Bengals' two-game record the last two weeks with 22 catches, and his 316 yards fell just eight yards shy of the 324 Carl Pickens put together against Baltimore (127) and Pittsburgh (204) in 1998.

"I used to call him, 'China Doll.' I can't do that anymore," Lewis said. "He's tough as nails. He has taken three of the cheapest shots I have seen in the NFL this year, and he just keeps getting up from them. After the play when the ball carrier is down, out of bounds, or whatever, for some reason, they've got a target on his back."

Lewis is still fuming over the hit Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel put on Houshmandzadeh at the end of the half in New England last week, when Houshmandzadeh said he had started jogging to the locker room with wide receiver Chad Johnson already two yards out of bounds and the clock at 00:00.

Lewis also didn't like the shot Browns safety Chris Crocker gave him after a Browns' interception, or an extra-curricular job Cowboys safety Roy Williams pulled in games last month.

Houshmandzadeh, averaging about 61 yards per game, needs between 66 and 67 yards per game in the last three to give the Bengals their first two 1,000-yard receivers on the same team. He and Chad Johnson are only 224 yards from finishing with the most yards by two receivers in passing the 2,174 set by Johnson and Warrick last season.

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