11-14-03, 6:45 p.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 ESPN reported as a $10.5 million option bonus.
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 certainly puts him in the top three for right now and in the top 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."