11-14-03, 6:45 p.m.
11-5-03, 10:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
How do you know it's the biggest Bengals game since Sam Wyche was coaching, Boomer Esiason was quarterbacking, and The Jungle was rocking?
Because guys like right tackle Willie Anderson and cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who have played in a combined 202 games for the Bengals, have never been in a game this big.
And guys like middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, who has played in two AFC title games, say it's a big game for more reasons than days in the month of November.
"We've won four games and they're saying, 'The Bengals are better,' but I still think people don't take us seriously," Hardy said. "This one is about getting respect and opening up some eyes."
Everyone can see it.
The 9-0 Chiefs vs. the 4-5 Bengals, winners of their last three home games, four of their last six, and hosting a full house watching their bid to reach .500 for the first time in the 10th game in 13 years?
"It is the biggest game, but to tell you the truth," said Anderson, who needed 120 games to appear in a game the Bengals trailed the division leaders by a game in November, "I've been trying to treat this like Marvin (Lewis) is my first coach. So, yeah, this is the biggest game in my new head coaching era."
It's the biggest game in the four years of Paul Brown Stadium and ends a week that is the high-water mark of Lewis' 10-month administration.
Last Sunday, the Bengals crashed within a game of division-leading Baltimore behind Rudi Johnson's franchise-best 43 carries in a 34-27 win over Houston. On Wednesday, they locked up franchise receiver Chad Johnson until 2009 with a contract extension that has become commonplace in the PBS era. On Thursday, they capped off their biggest four-day ticket blitz in a decade to sell out their third game of the season.
"No one," Chad Johnson said, "can say anything bad about this organization right now. . .From top to bottom."
It was a week the Bengals sold out after years of white-hot criticism burnt the edges of one of the most hard-core fan bases in the NFL.
"That shows you far we've come in a year," said Hawkins, who dragged his hobbled knees out to practice this week after missing the game against Houston. "What were we at this time last year? 1-8? And (in 2001), we didn't win a game in November. I'm not going to sit this one out. Not with all the talk about this being the biggest game. I think it is for guys who have played their whole careers here."
With Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller out for the year, there is a growing sense inside and outside the locker room that the AFC North title is there for the taking. But there is more at stake than a 5-5 record and possibly first place if what happens what people think is going to happen and the Boller-less Ravens melt in Miami Sunday.
"The Chiefs are the best team in the league and we're trying to establish ourselves," Hardy said. "We can get people to stand up and notice us."
The road map to victory is as clear as the highlight films churning out return man Dante Hall's exploits spliced with running back Priest Holmes' ballets and quarterback Trent Green's rockets with head coach Dick Vermeil's impassioned narration:
The Chiefs' defense has mediocre numbers, but they've been living off their prolific offense that is No. 1 in scoring and has put their foot on foes early with a 70-43 pad in the first quarter, and a 157-83 edge at the half. With the Bengals trailing, 47-45, in the first quarter, and tied after the half at 105, they know they have to start faster.
"Their defense is playing with a lot of confidence, and when you play with a lead you tend to play with a lot of confidence," Kitna said. "Our job this week is to try to come out and try to come out and neutralize that confidence early."
Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is emphasizing taking care of the ball against a team that has forced 29 takeaways. He's preaching for the Bengals not to let the Chiefs take away their composure.
"What happens to teams is that (the Chiefs) are so explosive on offense, that when they fall behind by a little bit and then people will start to press," Bratkowski said. "Then, when they start pressing, they try to catch up on one play and they get the turnovers. You can't let what they do on offense affect what we do on offense. We have to play our game. If they score a couple of times, we have to keep our head down and do things we're used to doing and not press and not trying to force the issue."
What the Bengals did best last week is the perfect way to stop the Chiefs' offensive machine that may very well include the league's best back, tight end (Tony Gonzalez), and offensive line: Run the ball for 41 minutes.
But Kitna knows that will be hard to do against Chiefs defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, a guy Kitna knows from his Seattle days playing the Broncos. Robinson's M.O. is to crowd the line with eight and nine players on first and second down in an effort to set up ugly distances on third down.
Which is where Chad Johnson comes in as one of the NFL's emerging down-field threats. It's why the Bengals gave him so much money so early, which included a $10.5 million bonus spread over three years.
The Bengals struck one of those deals that is good for the player while also salary-cap friendly. Because of the various options, it's hard to measure the deal against the NFL's other top receivers, but it puts him in at least the top three right now and in the top five to ten for a long time at all levels.
But the nice thing is that it doesn't crush the Bengals with big cap counts early on. It takes up $1 million of room this year, just $2.14 million next year, and $2.96 million in 2005 before the numbers start to get huge.
The deal may have raised eyebrows, but the Bengals have been doing big-money extensions since they moved out of their old stadium and into PBS. They extended Anderson a year early before the 2000 season, got Dillon out of free agency before the 2001 season, and extended Brian Simmons the training camp before he went on the market.
Anderson has noticed that since 2000, the Bengals have lost just two starters to free agency in linebacker Takeo Spikes and safety Cory Hall. But getting Johnson so early in his career probably also shows the impact the Type A Lewis is having on things.
"It's great to get things done like that early with one of your top players," Anderson said. "It's hard going into a season saying, 'Is our guy going to be here?' It really shows how things are moving. We're making an attempt to keep the game changers and that's huge."
Finally, it seems, the stars are aligned. A sellout, a settled cap, and a shot at the best team in the NFL in the biggest game since. . .
"And the thing is," Hawkins said, "the game against Seattle was our biggest game. Now, if we can keep winning, the next game is going to be bigger than this one, and on and on. They get bigger and better."
MATCHUPS:** The Bengals have to kick up their gear a couple of notches because the Chiefs have video game speed across the board that begins with the league's most devastating return games. On offense, they not only offer a bevy of shifts and motions, but they do it as quickly and as crisply as anyone in the NFL. On defense, they give up yards but not points with speedy, athletic players allowing them to reach the ball enough to force a NFL-best 29 takeaways.
The day begins with Bengals K Shayne Graham and P Kyle Richardson trying to use the best defense against Chiefs R Dante Hall, and it won't get any easier once Kansas City has the ball and Bengals MLB Kevin Hardy and FS Mark Roman have to make sure they get Chiefs RB Priest Holmes on the ground.
Plus, Bengals ROLB Brian Simmons and SS Rogers Beckett must contain the NFL's best tight end in Chiefs TE Tony Gonzalez. In a new head-old head match, Bengals DE Justin Smith takes on Chiefs LT Willie Roaf.
Bengals QB Jon Kitna has to be wary of Kansas City's band of fast linebackers led by Chiefs ROLB Shawn Barber whileBengals WR Chad Johnsontries to Joe Willie it againstChiefs CB Eric Warfield.**Bengals C Rich Braham leads Cincinnati's hot offensive line against young and quick Chiefs NT Ryan Sims.
GRAHAM, RICHARDSON VS. HALL:** To kick or not to kick to Hall? Teams gave done it all to him and ended up paying a price either way. If you kick it to him all day, he has popped his four touchdowns (two kicks, two punts) later in the game after he has handled a few. Teams have also squibbed a kick to Derrick Blaylock and he returned it for 32 yards, and Hall has also handed it off on a reverse that got 44 more.
Plain and simple. The kickers can't put it in the middle of the field for him and they have to give their coverage teams good hang time because Hall is excellent using his blockers. Graham has to have a better and more consistent day on kickoffs than he did last week, when he kicked it to the 18, 6, 6, 1, 7, 9, and 6. Despite last week's problems, the Bengals are seventh in the AFC in drive starts after kickoffs (27.2), but the Chiefs lead the NFL by taking the ball on the average out to their own 33-yard line. **
HARDY, ROMAN VS. HOLMES:** Holmes isn't only a threat running (and no one has more rushing yards in the NFL over the past 41 games), he leads the Chiefs with 41 catches and averages nearly a first down on each of his receptions.
The major problem with Holmes is that he always makes the first guy miss. The Chiefs even run plays to isolate Holmes on defenders without any blockers, knowing he'll make the first move and bounce it to the outside. And if the Bengals have had a problem in the running game lately it's the failure to wrap up backs and hold the long gain to seven or eight yards. That's what happened last week when missed tackles in the secondary produced Texans running back Domanick Davis' 51-yard run. Hardy and Roman can't let Holmes get away and get to the perimeter.
"You always have to know where he is," Hardy said. "They do a good job trying to confuse you by motioning people this way and that way out of the backfield."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis saw Holmes develop as the defensive coordinator in Baltimore, and Holmes isn't exactly the same guy since his two-bust out games against the Bengals in 1998 got his career going when he hit 400 (yards) against Cincinnati.
"I think he realizes that it's not how you get here, but what you do when you are here, and I think he really took that to heart," Lewis said. "He was always the first one on the practice field and the last one to leave. He was the last one to quit signing autographs. He is just a tremendous person. He's fun to watch. He's always a very well-conditioned guy. Obviously, with the maturity of his body physically, he's become the same guy with the same speed, but he's stronger than he was."
SIMMONS, BECKETT VS. GONZALEZ: The Bengals did a good job on a good tight end last week when they held Houston's Billy Miller to one catch for 11 yards. But there is no one in the league like Gonzalez, a four-time Pro Bowler who earlier this season passed Henry Marshall as the Chiefs' all-time leading receiver in just his seventh year in the NFL. Beckett gets reacquainted with Gonzalez from his AFC West days as a Charger and is used to his abilities at lining up in a variety of positions that take advantage of his down-field skills that are so rare at 6-4, 250 pounds.
The Bengals try to prevent Gonzalez from padding his NFL-leading five touchdowns for tight ends. Tight ends have done some damage against the Bengals down the field since the bye week. Baltimore's Heap had 129 yards that included a 31-yarder, Seattle's Mili had a 46-yard touchdown, and Arizona's Jones had a touchdown as well as a 17-yarder. **
SMITH VS. ROAF:** Anyone remember that the Bengals mulled taking Louisiana Tech's Roaf with the fifth pick in the 1993 draft before opting for Alabama defensive end John Copeland? The 6-5, 320-pound Roaf went to his eighth Pro Bowl last year, Copeland's second year out of football. Roaf anchors a line regarded as one of the best in the league with a rare athleticism that allows them to be so multiple on offense.
KITNA VS. BARBER: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis courted Barber early and often in free agency, but didn't have the money to extract Barber from his four-day siege in Kansas City. He can do it all as a superb cover guy and a quick guy that closes down the run. He moves inside on passing downs and causes problems jamming up a quarterback's throwing lanes.
For the past couple of weeks, Kitna has had success fitting the ball underneath zones and getting the ball in between linebackers in the middle of the field. That's going to be tougher against the Chiefs' athletic crew that gets a lot of tipped balls and is a big reason for the 29 takeaways. They may be the best set of linebackers the Bengals have played since the opener against Denver.
Also lurking: free safety Jerome Woods, who has picked Brett Favre and Tommy Maddox for touchdowns this year for a defense that has allowed just nine touchdown passes in nine games.
Footnote on the turnover factor: Kitna was 2-2 against the Chiefs while with Seattle. In the two wins, he threw more TDs than interceptions. In the two losses, he didn't. **
JOHNSON VS. WARFIELD:Former Chief Fred "The Hammer," Williamson is believed to have delivered the NFL's first modern day guarantee before Super Bowl I, and Johnson hopes his doesn't turn out as badly or as forgotten. The 6-0, 200-pound Warfield is having a terrific year and could be headed to the Pro Bowl with four interceptions, six passes defensed, a sack, and a forced fumble. He's seen as more of a hitter than a speedster, so Johnson is going to have to out-finesse him.
BRAHAM VS. SIMS:** Sims, 23, is in his second year out of North Carolina as a first-round pick and takes up acres with his massive 320 pounds. He's an aggressive penetrator who has three sacks and four quarterback pressures, and you know he's well coached by former Bengals defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz.
Braham did a nice job clearing the middle for 240 yards rushing last week and the Chiefs haven't exactly stuffed people in the running game. They're allowing 4.7 yards per rush and 123 yards per game. But maybe that's because teams have been so far behind, the Chiefs haven't had to worry about stopping the run in the second half.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game, including 12/14/97. That's the last time the Bengals won four straight in-season at home in a 31-24 victory over the Cowboys. The Bengals won the next week to extend the streak to five on Boomer Esiason's last NFL pass, a 77-yard touchdown to Darnay Scott for a 16-14 win over Baltimore. The Bengals won five straight at Paul Brown Stadium in the last two home games of 2000 and the first three of 2001.
4 _ Touchdowns via punt and kick returns by Kansas City's Dante Hall this season.
5 _ Touchdowns via punt and kick returns by Bengals since 1999.
Plus-159 _ The Chiefs' NFL-best takeaway-giveaway ratio since 1990.
Minus-55 _ The Bengals' takeaway-giveaway ratio since 1990, 29th in the NFL.
1 _ Total giveaways in Bengals' four victories.
11 _ Total giveaways in Bengals' five losses.
2-17 _ Bengals' record since 2002 when they commit more giveaways than takeaways.
157 _ Kansas City's NFL-best points in the first half.
186 _ Points Bengals have scored this season.
400 _ Rushing yards Chiefs running back Priest Holmes racked up against the Bengals in 1998 while playing for the Ravens.
442 _ Bengals running back Rudi Johnson's team-best rushing yards this season.
227 _ Holmes' rushing yards against the Bengals on Nov. 22, 1998, the most ever against Cincinnati.
240 _ Bengals' rushing yards last week.
0 – Snaps missed by Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, the only starting quarterback in the NFL who hasn't missed a play this season.