BY GEOFF HOBSON
Now with Rudi Johnson officially in the fold, the Bengals are looking around the AFC North in free agency and are feeling pretty good about staying intact.
"To me, this is the team Coach (Marvin) Lewis envisioned when he got here," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who supposedly had been courted by division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh before re-upping last week. "We may have the most balanced attack in our division. We can create matchup problems like Plax (Burress) and Hines (Ward) in Pittsburgh, but they're not going to have Plax any more."
Not only are the Steelers not going to have Burress and right tackle Oliver Ross after free agency clears, but the Ravens have lost from their '04 starting lineup in the first week of free agency their center, two receivers, a middle linebacker and a cornerback. And on one side, the Browns lost their quarterback in Jeff Garcia, and on the other side, their best defensive lineman in Gerard Warren.
When it comes to continuity, particularly on offense, the Bengals and their emerging leader in Carson Palmer have at least that leg up in a division they need to find any edge at all on the Steelers and Ravens.
"We couldn't do any of this without the guys up front," Houshmandzadeh said. "The offensive line is a big part of it, too. I'm just talking about the skilled positions. Look at how good Carson was in his first year. With everybody back, I just don't see us taking a step backward. We're about to set the NFL on fire."
The Bengals are expected to re-sign cener Rich Braham to bring back the North's only starting 11. But the division is making moves to get better.
The Ravens lost starting cornerback Gary Baxter, but now the Bengals have to face him twice a year as a member of the Browns. Plus, the Ravens replaced him with the best cornerback on the market in Samari Rolle. The Ravens lost wide receivers Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson, but added Pro Bowler Derrick Mason. The Browns got a Super Bowl defensive architect as head coach to match the Bengals. The defending division champion Steelers still have Ward, Randle-El, Bettis and Big Ben on their offense.
Still, the Bengals feel like their firepower is difficult to match. There is Chad Johnson and Houshmandzadeh's club-record 2,252 duo yards, spiced with Rudi Johnson's club-record 1,454 rushing yards and Palmer's line in his last three games against the Nos. 4, 9 and 12 defenses in the NFL: 77.5 percent passing (69-for-89), 9.4 yards per pass attempt, nine touchdowns, five interceptions.
"It's scary," said Palmer, who says you can't forget rehabbing receiver Peter Warrick.
Palmer has heard the whispers wondering if the club can pay Rudi, Houshmandzadeh and Warrick at the same time. So far, the team is keeping then all and Palmer is pleased. He hasn't forgotten that in the brief time Warrick played in four games last year, he threw 11 passes to Warrick for 127 yards.
Not to mention his first third-down conversion on his first NFL drive that turned into a Rudi Johnson nine-yard touchdown.
"We need Peter," Palmer said. "He can do so many things in the middle of the field. When he was in the game, I leaned on him a lot. I threw it to him a lot, and he came up with some big plays. You put those three guys out there - Chad, T.J., Peter - and I'm telling you, they put a lot of stress on a defense. Rudi is so good for this offense because he always gets the tough yard."
Last year, it was Palmer's offense.
This year, it is Palmer's team.
A leader is born
A sign of how easy it is for Palmer to embrace the leadership role came when Houshmandzadeh kept up a dialogue with Palmer in the days leading up to signing his deal last week.
"Outside of maybe Chad and Deltha (O'Neal), Carson is the guy I talked to the most on the team," Houshmandzadeh said. "He was pretty vocal he wanted me back. It's his team. It comes natural to a guy who has done it all his life. It got easier for him last year snap by snap."
Palmer knows whatever a quarterback does, it's perceived in the context of leadership. But he was just doing it because he felt it was important.
"I was telling T.J. to imagine just how good we can be if he came back," Palmer said. "Look at the big games we had last year, and with another year together, you just think we're going to get better. We've got the same guys blocking up front; I told him it can be just awesome."
This is a big reason why the Bengals locked up Rudi and Houshmandzadeh and are now going slow in free agency because the salary cap has shrunk:
In the last three games they played together in '04, Palmer threw for 835 yards and nine touchdowns, while Rudi ran for 347 yards and Houshmandzadeh had 395 receiving yards.
Two of those games were against division foes, and the other against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.