Bengals look to 'Steel' AFC North

12-22-03, 6:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

It happened in Kevin Hardy's rookie season. Dec. 22, in fact, 1996, in Jacksonville.

There were eight seconds left in the last game of the regular season and even as the Jaguars' fans danced to "Sweet Home Alabama," they knew their dream year was over. But it had been such a good season in just the team's second year of existence, why not dance to hometown hero Lynyrd Skynyrd?

Because here was Falcons future Hall-of-Fame kicker Morten Andersen, an 80-percenter, ready to kick them out of the playoffs with a mere chip shot Thirty yards. This was one year after Andersen set the NFL record of eight 50-plus yard field goals. So Andersen would kill the dream by lining it up and.. .

Slip. Miss. Badly. To the left. And Hardy's Jags had gone from expansion misfits to the playoffs.

"That's what you hang on to," said Hardy, seven years to the day of the miracle. "Because this league is funny. Anything can happen. Who would have thought yesterday (the Saints' John) Carney would miss an extra point?"

Who would have thought back on Dec. 22 last year that the Bengals would need just a win over Cleveland and a Baltimore loss to Pittsburgh to clinch the AFC North title and a home playoff game? Who would have thought Cincinnati would be 8-7, the Browns 4-11, and the Bengals actually watching the last game of the regular season Sunday night getting beamed out of Baltimore for national TV?

"It's ironic, I keep talking about that game, but our focus has to be Cleveland," Hardy said. "Then we can turn on the TV when we get home.

"Baltimore is the stronger team, but I've been in situations when you're quote unquote not playing for anything, you want to go out and kind of be a spoiler," Hardy said. "I know those guys in Pittsburgh, I think if you asked them they would rather see us go than Baltimore go."

Who would have thought back on Jan. 14, when Bengals president Mike Brown hired Marvin Lewis as head coach, that Lewis' first playoff bid could be decided by a game pitting his two bosses in the NFL, the Steelers' Bill Cowher and the Ravens' Brian Billick?

Lewis is going to get mad about all this Ravens-Steelers talk, but even he caught himself at Monday's news conference musing out loud about Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and how he hopes The Bus has a lube job and gets his tires checked.

The Steelers may be 6-9 and out of it, but make no mistake. When asked if he was looking forward to getting a chance to play spoiler for the Ravens after Sunday's victory over visiting San Diego, Cowher allowed tersely, "Very much so."

The Bengals think the Steelers can do it. They like Pittsburgh's matchup against NFL leading rusher Jamal Lewis .In this season's opener, they gave Lewis just 69 yards on 15 carries in the Steelers 34-15 victory, and are 11th in the league in rush defense.

"I think Pittsburgh does a good job of stopping the run and that's Baltimore's strength," said rookie guard Eric Steinbach. "It's a good team to play Baltimore at this point."

The Steelers have won six straight games in Baltimore. They knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs the year after the Ravens won the Super Bowl. There is a history there of which Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross is well versed.

Last month in Pittsburgh, after the Bengals beat the Steelers in the final minute, Ross's close friend, Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter, assured Ross his team would knock off Baltimore. When Ross tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in St. Louis Sunday, Porter called with sympathy and a reiteration.

"Joey told me, 'Y'all make sure you beat Cleveland because we've got Baltimore for you,'' Ross said. "Baltimore is going to get that running attack going obviously. I think the front seven can hang with it. They have good schemes. They have good linebackers. I think (the Steelers) like that type of game. And you've got (Ravens middle linebacker) Ray Lewis against their linebackers. That's the matchup."

Marvin Lewis, ironically enough, coached the Steelers' linebackers before going to Baltimore as the defensive coordinator having a huge say in the Ravens drafting of Ray Lewis in 1997. There are bad vibes with those backers, particularly after the opener.

Porter couldn't play because he was recovering from a gun-shot wound, but he was upset when Lewis came to town and borrowed some of Porter's celebration steps and basically pronounced Heinz Field "My house."

"Joey's hurt and he can't defend himself and (Lewis) comes in doing that," Ross said.

Porter also got mad when he saw Lewis make about two or three tackles that day and he still is credited with 193 tackles for this season.

"That got Joey hot," Ross said.

Ross is upset, too. He has waited six years and 90 games for Sunday's chance to play for a division title. And now the ACL.

It's a cruel blow for a guy who has always been a fan favorite since he signed as a free agent out of Colorado State.

"Very disappointing," Ross said. "I love playing football period. But to be playing with something on the line and the way our fans are right now, it really hurts. I can feel the love with the fans now and there's nothing like coming home and playing in front of the home crowd. It's going to be some kind day."

He has reconstructive surgery Wednesday, but he's hoping the doctors let him on the sidelines Sunday.

Like Hardy said. Anything can happen It already has.

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