Backer added

11-25-03, 6:45 a.m. **

PLAYOFF SIGNS:** Sure signs the Bengals are in the hunt. The Bengals are distributing information for playoff tickets (in the top right hand of this page), with the league-mandated two-game package consisting of a Wild Card or Divisional Game and the AFC championship Game. Season ticket holders have been invoiced for both possible playoff games.

More signs? Head coach Marvin Lewis is doing the NFL's media conference call on Wednesday.

1,000 CHECK: With a healthy Corey Dillon back in the lineup, running back Rudi Johnson had his fewest number of carries (16) and yards (65) of his five starts in San Diego. But since the Bengals won, there are no complaints. Johnson was one of the guys talking about "one heartbeat," weeks before head coach Marvin Lewis had the T-shirts printed.

"It's not discouraging. We won the ballgame," Johnson said. "He's been here long enough to know what it feels like not to win, and I've been here a short period of time and I don't want to have that feeling anymore and I know he doesn't. As long as we keep winning, we're all good. However we get it done. On the West Coast, I told him, 'Let's get it done no matter who's in there. If you're in there or I'm in there, let's get it done, period.'''

Johnson came into Sunday's game needing to average 65.5 for his first 1,000-yard season and he's staying right on the needle at 65.6.

"I'm going to keep playing and it will take care of itself," Johnson said.

The idea is fresh legs heading into the last five games. Johnson has 154 carries, the fewest of the 11 rushers ahead of him in the AFC. Dillon has 93, giving them a combined 247, 18 fewer than Baltimore's Jamal Lewis with 265, and 22 fewer than Miami's Ricky Williams.

By the way, one of Dillon's junior colleges, Dixie College, is playing Johnson's Butler County Community College in the Dec. 6 national JUCO championship. Johnson went for 393 in the 1999 title game against Dixie.

**

LAST TIME:** The last time the Bengals won four in a row during the season was weeks 2-5 in 1989. The last time they had seven wins going into December was 1988. In their last playoff run of 1990, they were like they are now and heading into Pittsburgh 6-5 for a Dec. 2 game.

That's also the last time people were checking tie-breakers for division titles. First is head-to-head, then the division record, and then common foes.

The Bengals have beaten AFC North co-leader Baltimore at home, but go there Dec. 7. The Ravens are 1-2 in the division with the Bengals and Steelers at home and the Browns on the road left. The Bengals are 2-1 with Baltimore and Pittsburgh away and Cleveland home. The Ravens look to have a two-game lead on common foes, but they each still have the division games left, along with a game against San Francisco.

Both the Bengals and Ravens have beaten the Browns, Chargers, and Seahawks, and lost to the Steelers. The Ravens beat Arizona and Denver and lost to the Chiefs. The Bengals beat the Chiefs, but lost to Arizona and Denver. Baltimore still has to play Oakland (a Bengal loss) and Cincinnati has to play St. Louis ( a Raven loss).

**

STEEL TOWN:** Right tackle Willie Anderson said it Monday. Even though the Steelers are 4-7, they have owned this division since Bill Cowher began coaching them in 1992, and the Bengals feel like they are going to have to beat them Sunday in Pittsburgh if they want to win it.

Anderson says his team is better than the one that lost to the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium back on Sept. 21, 17-10, simply because they are running the ball better and because they are more in tune with head coach Marvin Lewis.

But Anderson knows the Bengals aren't going to be able to pound the ball like they have the past three weeks with 200-yard plus rushing games. Not with the Steeler defense ranked eighth against the run and ninth overall.

Plus, it looks like the Steelers have re-committed to Jerome Bettis and the running game. Lewis, who coached under Cowher when the Steelers were sub-.500 in October and came back to win the AFC title in 1995, has seen this all before.

"They'll play as though they are 11-0. They're not going to play like what their record is," Lewis said. "They are going to be just as confident, just as prepared, just as they are going to be very aggressive. What do you have to lose? He's going to strike that into them all week. They know we're in front of them in the division, and basically they can take care of their own destiny, just like we can. It's a long road, with five games left."

But the road goes through Pittsburgh, Lewis' hometown. It's a road that veers through North Street in McDonald (about 25 minutes from Pittsburgh) and stops by the yellow brick First Baptist Church. It's the church where Lewis and two of his assistants, Jay and Jon Hayes, grew up. On Monday, the pastor, Rev. Keith W. Clark, reported a split congregation.

"We've all been praying for Marvin and the Hayes' brothers," Clark said. "I know there'll be a 'Go Bengals' cheer and a 'Go Steelers,' cheer on Sunday." Last month against Baltimore, about 25-30 church members signed up for a bus trip to Cincinnati.

Lewis himself might not be as emotional with the game at Heinz Field and not at old Three Rivers, where he coached for four seasons and went to games as a kid. His family was on a list for season tickets and never got them, but he got into his first game by buying tickets in the first quarter. He knows it was against O.J. Simpson and the Bills and he thinks he was about 10.

"I think it would be a lot harder if it was still Three Rivers Stadium. I remember the first time coming home (as a Baltimore Ravens assistant coach) to Three Rivers Stadium," Lewis said. "It was tough. Now, at Heinz Field, it's a little different. I don't know that place as well as Three Rivers. It's going to be a big game for us, obviously, because it is us vs. them, and just going back to Pittsburgh. Right now this is home. The Bengals are No. 1."

**

STAT CHECK REVISE:** With five games left, Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson is poised to become the third Bengal to lead the AFC in receiving yards, not the first. No Bengal has ever led the NFL. Johnson would be joining Eddie Brown and Isaac Curtis as AFC champions. After his 10-catch day in San Diego Sunday for 107 yards, he has opened up a 153-yard lead on Tennessee's Derrick Mason and a 164-yard lead on Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison with 988. He also is tied with Pittsburgh's Hines Ward with most

catches at 65, trailing only the Rams' Torry Holt (84-1,285), the Vikings' Randy Moss (72-1,079), and Cardinals rookie Anquan Boldin (66-999).

Johnson is on pace to break Brown's club record of 1,273 set in 1988 in front of Holt in St. Louis Dec. 21 on his way to finishing with 1,438 for the first back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since Carl Pickens did it from 1994-96. . .

Quarterback Jon Kitna is tied with the Colts' Peyton Manning on top of the AFC with 19 touchdown passes, trailing only Green Bay's Brett Favre by one in the NFL. He has also led the Bengals' offense into the No. 10 spot in the NFL rankings. The last time the Bengals were in the top ten was when they finished 10th in 1996 and 1997. They finished ninth in the playoff year of 1990.

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