12-1-03 6:30 a.m.
12-1-03, 10:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PITTSBURGH _ Marvin Mania has reached new heights. Bengaldom is chic again, just like it was back in the '80s to be Born in the USA with Bruce, Reagan and Madonna. The Bengals, who haven't been to the playoffs since 1990, are a win away in Baltimore next week from getting a magic number.
"It's getting crazy," said quarterback Jon Kitna of his forays into community. "Ohio is a little different. It's a football state. I was 8-2 in Seattle, but more people recognized me here when we were going 2-14. When grandmas start to notice you, this is a different place. It's getting crazy."
How crazy? The Bengals' hotel on this trip, the William Penn, was besieged by the biggest crush of Bengals' fans since the playoff years. Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, posing for pictures and mulling a working weekend in Baltimore this week, checked in.
Word was that Ickey Woods, hero of the last Super Bowl run, was in the nosebleed seats at Heinz Field and commenced to do "The Ickey Shuffle," when Kitna hit tight end Matt Schobel with the winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds left.
The players are beginning to sense it now. Off the field is as different as on the field for the guys who have labored for years on struggling teams.
"Every week it's the biggest win," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Every week it
just keeps getting bigger. Next week we go to Baltimore, another tough division game, it will probably take us 60 minutes to win that one, too. Hat's off to the coaching staff, and all the fans—everybody that's supporting us right now. It's great, it's a great feeling."
Kitna, who hasn't thrown an interception in 114 passes – since the last pass in the first half against Houston Nov. 9 _ is riding the wave. He's already got 22 touchdown passes, one short of his career high and seven away from Ken Anderson's club record. But he'll be the first to tell you he's had plenty of help.
"The whole day, we kept coming back, we made enough plays," Schobel said. "And even on that drive there were four big plays: the kickoff return, the run, [Peter Warrick] made a big catch, and it was just my turn to make a play, and I did it."
CHAD GLAD:** Wide receiver Chad Johnson said he dialed up CBS talkmaster Deion Sanders after the game and urged him to come out of retirement because he might be the only around who can cover him. Johnson went over 1,000 yards for the second straight year with 117 yards on six catches, and he's now 168 yards shy of Eddie Brown's club record of 1,273.
Johnson, who worked out with Sanders and other NFL receivers during a weekend in Dallas this past summer, has 1,105 yards on the season, 61 yards from last year's total. He caught his ninth touchdown pass Sunday on a four-yarder, the most receiving touchdowns since Carl Pickens had 12 in 1996. But his biggest play was a leaping 58-yard catch and run over the middle that set up Shayne Graham's 44-yard field goal with 8:32 left in the game for a 17-14 lead.
He needs to average 174 yards in the last four games to reach his goal of 1,800: "Just answer me one thing. Am I coverable? No. So I'll keep getting yards and they'll pile up."
SHADES OF' 88:** The Bengals finished November 4-1 for their first four-win month since the 4-0 September of 1988. They did it with four straight wins, their longest in-season streak since 1989 in weeks 2-5, and back-to-back road wins for the first time since Oct. 19 in Pittsburgh and Nov. 12 in Houston of 1995. They won in Jacksonville two weeks later for their last three-game road streak. Their last five-game winning streak was the 6-0 run that opened the '88 season. They are now 3-3 on the road. The last time they went 4-4 on the road was that '95 season.
JONES ANSWERS CALL: Left tackle Levi Jones, who gave up two of the Steelers' four sacks back in September, came up big as part of a unit that held them to one sack Sunday. And that came on a safety blitz on which Kitna took the blame.
But Jones was still upset with himself for his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the Bengals a possible clinching touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
"He cheap-shot me and I retaliated. Smart move by him and a dumb move by me," Jones said of an encounter with linebacker Joey Porter. "I feel bad about it. I'm glad we won, but I feel badly about putting that much pressure on my teammates."
MIXED BAG:** The Bengals' defense came up with its first two turnovers since cornerback Terrell Roberts' interception at the end of the Houston victory Nov. 9, and the club registered a season-high six sacks Sunday against Steelers quarterbacks Tommy Maddox (5) and Charlie Batch (1). Plus, they stopped Bengal slayer Jerome Bettis, holding the running back to 62 yards on 20 carries. That's his fewest yards in the 13 games against the Bengals he's carried at least 20 times.
:But Steelers wide receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress had a field day against them with 149 and 112 yards, respectively. Ward had 13 catches, the most against Cincinnati since Art Monk caught 13 for 230 yards for the Redskins 18 years ago.
Jimmy Smith still holds the record with 14 for the Jaguars in the 2000 finale, but Ward's 13 breaks the NFL's second-longest streak of not allowing a receiver 10 or more catches at 47 games. Cleveland has the longest streak at 60.
"They nickel and dimed us down the field," said outside linebacker Brian Simmons. "We can't let that happen. We have to eliminate it. We had a chance to close the door. I'm glad we won, but as a defense, we had a chance to win the game and we let them get away."
For just the second time this season, the defense surrendered a fourth-quarter lead when Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox hit nine of 10 passes for 78 yards in an 11-play drive that took just 3:15 to give the Steelers a 20-17 lead with 1:05 left in the game.
But they held on, in large part, because a Simmons' blitz forced Batch to fumble on a sack in the last seconds of the first half on the Cincinnati 12. While the Steelers argued it was a pass, defensive tackle John Thornton fell on it for their first fumble recovery since Nov. 2.
Thornton had two sacks and left end Duane Clemons had two sacks, his first since he had three in Buffalo.
Plus, containing Bettis was huge, although he did become the 10th man to gain 12,000 yards in a career. He thought the way the Bengals played him opened up the pass.
"They were blitzing just about every play. We knew that they were going to be a little bit more aggressive than most of the teams [we've played] recently," Bettis said. "They wanted to make sure that the running game didn't beat them. And they sold out. You notice, on just about every play on first and second down, they were blitzing somebody. It disrupts the running game, but it gives us an opportunity to throw the football.
Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, the Johnstown, Pa., native, had 30 people at the game and he didn't disappoint with his first interception of the season.
"Show them a little something. I was glad we came out with a win," Hawkins said. "When they scored with a minute left, we said on the sidelines, "they left us too much time."'
The Steelers seemed surprised the Bengals had that much fight left.
"They have a little more moxie than they did. They used to be a team that would lay down. They fight the whole game," said Steelers linebacker Joey Porter. "They're out there [and] play hard. I'll give it to them. Those guys play real hard. But at the same time, I feel we gave it to them because all three touchdowns were gave them were mistakes."