BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals quarterback Akili Smith actually dreamed about this game months ago, right down to offensive coordinator Kenny Anderson whispering the winning play into his ear.
And why not? Paul Brown Stadium's regular-season opener on Sunday is almost a surreal deal.
You've got the two Ohio teams Paul Brown founded, the Bengals and Browns, trying to re-discover the glory days when the man in the fedora stalked their sidelines. They both start from the bottom, with the Bengals pinning their hopes on two players the Browns could have taken in the last two drafts in Smith and rookie receiver Peter Warrick, and a man Cleveland coveted in free agency in Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.
More storylines? Why not? The Bengals are Young and talking about this as a must game. The Browns are Restless after playing Jacksonville tough last week before losing, 27-7, and it's the NFL's best soap opera.
Presenting the game ball to the officials Sunday is Forrest Gregg, the only man to coach both franchises and the guy who took Cincinnati to its first of two Super Bowls following the 1981 season. Tim Couch, the Browns' gutty and resourceful second-year quarterback who is also the King of Kentucky, is playing on his border. Cleveland's much-maligned secondary gets a chance to redeem itself against what is believed to the NFL's first ever starting rookie receiver tandem from the same college in Florida State's Warrick and Ron Dugans.
And then there is the ultmate matchup.
The Bengals vs. themselves. The Bengals vs. the '90s. The Bengals vs. the ghosts of David Klingler and Ki-Jana Carter and Carl Pickens and killer karma and lousy luck and just bad football.
But Dillon spoke for a communuity and a franchise this weekend when he looked around the Bengals' sparkling locker room on a day the Bengals donated Spinney Field to the city of Cincinnati and asked, "Everything around us is new. Why can't our team be new? We've got the new faces. We've got the talent. We're looking past all the nastiness and ugliness."
The numbers haunt. In the past four seasons, the Bengals are 5-25 in September and October games. Since 1997, coach Bruce Coslet is 3-19 in September and October. Since 1991, Coslet, Sam Wyche and Dave Shula are 10-58 in September and October. The seasons have died before the leaves.
"The only way you're fighting history is if the losing starts," said Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "But we don't have that mental mindset. It's just playing the Browns. A must game? If we want to be the team we want to become, I think this is a step we have to take."
Offensive captain Willie Anderson, the right tackle matched against No. 1 draft pick Courtney Brown Sunday, thinks they finally have the right mix of guys to take that step.
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"We've got enough of the old guys who have been around here who are the strong character guys who are going to say this stuff isn't going to keep happening," Anderson said. "And we've got enough of the new guys who'll say, 'Hey, I've never been here before anyway.' Peter Warrick wasn't here in 1990. He wasn't here in 1998."
In 1998, Warrick and Dugans were trying to figure out if they should hang on campus in Tallahassee for another year. Now they appear to hold the key to the Bengals' season opener.
Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell torched the Browns for 301 passing yards with receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith running open for 15 catches for 167 yards against cornerbacks Corey Fuller and Daylon McCuthcheon. McCutcheon is a good player, but he's small at 5-10. Fuller is more of a safety and had a tough time against the Bengal wideouts last season when Darnay Scott and Pickens caught balls of 52 and 35 yards, respectively, in Cincinnati's 44-28 victory.
There is talk the Browns are trying to get one of their fourth-round picks on the field in speedy cornerback Lewis Sanders, which would make PB Stadium look more like the Blue-Gray game.
"I have confidence in Warrick and Dugans," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian. "They played a lot of big games at a big program and they're both very competitive."
They've also had no part of the history. The last game they played that counted, they won the national championship.
"I don't know how people can say we're the same old Bengals," Smith said. "Look around this locker room and look at all these new faces. I don't understand it. We're playing for a new era. We're playing for a new stadium. The only way to prove it to people is to win."
After all the dreaming and all the talking and all the building, it has come to this.
"It just doesn't matter what you say now," Spikes said. "I'll talk after the game, because the game is all that matters. Not what you say now."