BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals President Mike Brown left this week's meeting of owners pleased that the NFL's realignment keeps Cincinnati in the same division with Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
When the owners gave the Bengals the option of moving to a southeast division with Tennessee, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville, Brown made it clear he wanted his team to stay with Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
"Our fans like the relationship and when we're playing well, it perks up even more," Brown said of the two games that consistently sell out in Cincinnati. "The towns are close, the fans can get to them easily, and there's a lot of history with these teams."
With the Steelers and Browns in the fold, Brown isn't concerned with intense lobbying that most likely makes the expansion Houston Texans the fourth and final team in the 2002 AFC Central.
Brown wanted Indy or Tennessee as the fourth team, but he didn't want them enough to be without the Browns and Steelers.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney has an affinity for his club's rivalry with Baltimore and the Ravens' market size, as well as with Cleveland. Incoming Ravens' owner Steve Bisciotti also likes the AFC Central market.
But Brown rejected a concept sending the Bengals to the southeast, which is where it appears Baltimore is now headed. The owners have until June 1 next year to finalize re-alignment.
In the current fan poll of about 2,100 votes on bengals.com late Thursday afternoon, a total of 41 percent said they would have liked Indianapolis to join Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the new division.
The Colts were followed by Tennessee (22.9 percent), Houston (19.3), Buffalo, (8) and Baltimore (7.8) .
"I'm not concerned about any of those teams coming in," Brown said Thursday. "I would like the core to re main and it appears it has. When it was left at our meeting, they had us together and I have no reason to think it will change. I guess it could change, but this is the way we want it."
The Cincinnati-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Houston division looks to be set because . . .
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Houston owner Bob McNair and Browns owner Al Lerner both want the Texans in what is now the AFC Central.
The Houston Oilers were in the Central since the 1970 merger until they moved to Tennessee after the 1996 season. McNair says his fans want the familiarity of the old rivalries, particularly with Pittsburgh.
As part of his deal to bolt Cleveland, outgoing Baltimore owner Art Modell's team doesn't get a vote in realignment.
Given Houston is a top 10 market with a new stadium and the Oilers-Bengals rivalry had a nice run in the '80s, the Bengals welcome Houston.
"That would be fine," Brown said. "It would be back to where we were. We always thought of Houston as a good rivalry in our division and I don't know why it wouldn't work now."
Brown knew he would have a tough fight with Cleveland and Pittsburgh trying to draw in Tennessee or Indy.
"It's just the opposite with Baltimore for us," Brown said. "Baltimore's too far to drive for our fans, and Nashville or Indianapolis would be about the same distance for them. It would be seven to eight hours and it's too far."