10-24-01, 10:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals reported back to work Wednesday and defensive captain Takeo Spikes wasted no time spinning the theme of the week to his teammates.
Seven out of the final 10. Win seven of the last 10 games. A 7-3 finish. That would make the 3-3 Bengals 10-6. Which makes Sunday's game in Detroit against the winless Lions slightly larger than huge.
"It's a must-win game," said tight end Tony McGee before Wednesday's practice. "For the reason that we could have given ourselves some kind of cushion the last couple of weeks, but we didn't do it. We put ourselves up against the wall.
"If we go into the bye week at .500, we still have some breathing room," McGee said. "Nine or 10 wins can get you into the playoffs. If you get too far behind the eight ball, you have to be perfect and it's hard to be perfect in this league."
The Bengals are perfect in "Must Games." They had to have the opener. They did. They had to beat Cleveland to go to 3-2. They did.
Welcome to the Mother of Must Games. They need to beat Detroit to go 4-3 into their bye week and prepare for the final nine foes that have a combined record of 24-24.
But even though the first two post-bye games (at Jacksonville and home against Tennessee) are against struggling teams, the Bengals haven't won in Jacksonville since Dave Shula was head coach and they haven't beat Tennessee anywhere since Corey Dillon was a rookie.
They must lead the league in "Must Games."
"It's a reachable goal," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins of 7-3. "It's not a must win, but if you want to win seven of the last ten. . .This game is big because it's a boost of momentum going
into the bye week. You'll have more confidence. At 3-4, you'll be thinking of Jacksonville and going some place you haven't won much and all that."
Spikes stressed to his teammates Wednesday that they have to find the same edge and urgency they had earlier in the season.
"Attention to detail," Spikes said. "The little things. We've got a great chance to establish what we built in preseason and in the first two games."
The players realize they lack the same fire that vaulted them to 2-0 with the 21-10 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.
"We were jacked up when we played Baltimore," Hawkins said. "We played with confidence and you could see it. We haven't really played a game like that since. It's not acceptable to win one out of three."
Fullback Lorenzo Neal, veteran of Tennessee's last two seasons of 13-3, can feel the ebb and flow of a playoff run. And he senses time is running out for this postseason. Neal is one of these guys who says, "every game is a must game." But he also sees a .500 team going into a bye week that could face 14 days of thinking about 3-4.
"I don't want to be there. I don't think anybody wants to be there," Neal said. "The more you fall behind the eight ball, the more pressure you put on yourself and the more critical it is to win. This is one of those critical games."
A win just wouldn't mean 4-3. A win Sunday would also mean:
Their first .500 record heading into November since 1990.
The first time they recorded their fourth victory before November since 1990.
Their first October road victory over a non-division foe since 1990.
Another thing about that 1990 team?
They went into their bye week one game over .500 (5-4) and won four of their last seven. Which qualified the Bengals for their last playoffs.