11-05-01, 10:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
How times have changed in the AFC Central.
On Monday, the former formidable Jaguars bickered among themselves with a 2-5 record while the quarterback of the once lowly Bengals plotted a play-off run at 4-3.
"I don't see any reason why we can't be 12-4," Jon Kitna said Monday as the Bengals reported back to work from bye weekend. "People call me crazy, call me an idiot, but I don't see a reason.
"Why can't we?" Kitna asked. "We've got all the talent in here that we need. We're a game out of first place. Why can't we win the division? If we just play our game, we can win a lot of ballgames in the second half of the season. Why can't we go 8-1? We haven't even played our best yet (on offense) and we're 4-3."
The Bengals, emboldened by another manic Sunday that left the AFC Central as jumbled as a Florida recount, find themselves one of four teams within two games of the 5-2 and first-place Steelers. Cincinnati is nestled in a third-place tie with Cleveland, a half-game behind second-place Baltimore (5-3) and a game ahead of 3-4 Tennessee.
But, ironically, if they want to be taken seriously, they have to beat the last-place Jaguars in Jacksonville this Sunday. And they haven't won there in six seasons.
In fact, the 17-13 victory in ALLTEL Stadium on Nov. 26, 1995 marks the last time the Bengals won back-to-back road games.
The point has not been lost on head coach Dick LeBeau, who was coordinating the Pittsburgh defense to the Super Bowl during that 1995 season.
"Coach LeBeau told us we've got the greatest opportunity in the world," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "We've got a chance to win two games in a row on the road and get the consistency we're looking for around here."
What else was happening in '95 when the Bengals last went back-to-back on the road?
Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon was rushing for
1,899 yards at Dixie (Junior) College in St. George, Utah. The Atlanta Braves won the last World Series not ruled by the Yankees or an expansion team. Jeff Blake threw to Carl Pickens in the last 30 seconds for that win in Jacksonville.
Spikes and offensive captain Willie Anderson, who were teammates at Auburn back in '95, both think Sunday's first game off the bye is more important than the season opener.
"Pittsburgh lost their first game and look what they've done," Anderson said. "You've still got 15 games left. Now we've got nine left and three straight division games, where the wins count double and the losses hurt. We're in good position. We control our own destiny. We need to get that consistency."
Spikes simply calls it the most important game of the year, "as far as giving us confidence. Then we'll know what needs to be done to be a championship team."
Anderson envisions a season-long scrum in a division that has been dominated lately by one or two teams.
"For the first time in a long time," Anderson said, "all the teams are going to be watching the scoreboard. Back in '95 and '96, it was Pittsburgh. Then it was Jacksonville. Then it was Tennessee and Baltimore. Everybody is going to be seeing who gets into first, second, or third place. Maybe three teams make the playoffs and you get left behind with a good record."
Even though the Jags have fallen on hard times, the Bengals still fear a passing game intact from Jacksonville's championship days: quarterback Mark Brunell and receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.
But it was the Jags' defense griping after Sunday's 28-24 loss to Tennessee. After the Titans scored on their final drive, linebacker Kevin Hardy Monday Morning Quarterbacked the calls.
"We went into a soft zone," Hardy said. "I think that (we could have been) in a more aggressive scheme. We probably need to play man-to-man coverage. But like I said, you play man-to-man, and you get beat and you can second guess that."
But Jags coach Tom Coughlin, the intense taskmaster, made it clear Monday he is looking for more from his players.
"We need somebody to make a play," Coughlin said. "I look at our second half and I think there were two plays defensively."
Back in Bengaland, the only quarterbacking on Monday so far is coming from Kitna. Kitna, seeking the first 300-yard passing game of his career, is counting on the Bengals' offense to launch the playoff push.
He figures the potential is there with receiver Peter Warrick looking for the first 100-yard day of his career, receiver Darnay Scott's season-high at
only 104 yards, and rookie receiver Chad Johnson about to sit out the third and what could be his last game with a broken clavicle.
"We haven't even been close," said Kitna of the offense's possibilities. "We're going to get Chad Johnson back. Peter Warrick is about to have a huge game if he keeps having the kind of year he's been having. Darnay is going to have one of those 180 games. (Dillon), he'll run for over 200 at some point, you know that."
But Kitna, who along with left tackle Richmond Webb, fullback Lorenzo Neal, and left guard Matt O'Dwyer are the only offensive players with playoff starts, knows the stretch for the postseason is as much mental.
"You have to believe that stuff is going to happen to make it happen," Kitna said. "You've got guys like 41 (Neal) and 73 (Webb) that believe it's going to happen. We need other guys who are not going to be surprised when it does happen."