BY GEOFF HOBSON
The schedule says, "Bengals at Jaguars, 1 p.m." But it might as well be "Bengals vs. Bengals at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.", as they duel with fire and ice, NFL style on Sunday.
Their head coach is under fire and their offense is on ice, but more and more the Bengals are convinced their problems don't have much to do with Xs and Os after the deflating Opening Day 24-7 loss to the second-year Cleveland Browns.
Oh, they will have plenty to deal with on the blackboard, too, at ALLTEL Stadium. Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, who has two 100-yard rushing days against Cincinnati, is nursing a sore knee ligament. But he practiced in limited fashion this week and could play if he feels good at game time.
Mike Hollis, the NFL's most accurate kicker in NFL regular-season history, worked today and it looks like his cranky back will be ready for Sunday. Receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell are first and fifth, respectively in the league in catches. After getting strafed in a 39-36 loss to the Ravens last week, Jacksonville's defense is talking about reviving its blitz against the inexperience of Bengals quarterback Akili Smith.
But the Bengals' biggest demon may not be playing for the formidable Jaguars.
"It'a a head trip. That's all it is right now. It's a head trip and if you don't know how to fight yourself through it, you can't get out of a wet paper bag," said fullback Clif Groce. "Imagine trying to play while also trying to erase all the bad history at the same time. We've got so many new guys around here, they don't know about the bad times. Fifteen percent of it is new. Then when something bad happens, 85 percent of it is suddenly, 'Damn, here we go again.' And you don't even know what the here-we-go-again is. We just have to come out and get settled into our game right from the start because we've got the people here."
Akili Smith touched on it earlier this week. These Bengals want to win in the worst way, and that's how they end up playing. Like a country doctor, he made his house calls to various locker stalls this week and is pushing the we-were-humiliated-and-it-won't-happen-again theme.
"We have to learn to relax as a football team," Smith said. "One thing I've realized about this team is that we put so much pressure on ourselves because we want to do so (well) so quickly. . .We have to have success on our first few drives. We've got to get points on the board. We've been waiting until the third and fourth drive and we can't do that."
If there's any outsider who expects the Bengals to beat Jacksonville on the road, they have yet to publicly state it on a betting line or elsewhere. Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin, always so tightly-wound, focused and hard, was said to be a bit more relaxed this week. A tad looser with the media. Which usually means he likes where things are headed.
But after a week in which expectations in a new stadium against a beatable foe suffocated them, the Bengals can see an emotional crack.
"I'm not going to say it's a good thing," said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins of the predictions. "But it takes the pressure off. Not as a player, because a player always has pressure. We know what everyone thinks, but sometimes that will work in your favor. You get that underdog mentality. Athletic ability takes over and you let it all hang out." . . .
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Defensive end John Copeland, the dean of the defense in his eighth season, is waging his own battle with Pro Bowl left tackle Tony Boselli Sunday. But he's also aware of the team's racing pulse early in the game.
"We try to do too much in the beginning and by the time we calm down, it's too late," Copeland said. "We've got to go into a game calm and do exactly what we do in practice. "We want to do so good so bad, we just try to do too much and it hurts us. We've got to calm everybody down, play their game, do what we do out here on this (practice) field and we'll be a good football team."
Which is why much emphasis is being put on the first quarter. Groce says the opening moments are important in establishing the run so the Bengals can set a tone for the rest of the day and take Smith out of a 30-pass day. Copeland wants the defense to settle that first series, without the 65-yard play Browns quarterback Tim Couch torched on the game's first play.
"We know Jacksonville is going to be hyped up because they lost," Copeland said. "But hopefully we can go in the back door because they're thinking, 'It's the Cincinnati Bengals and they lost to Cleveland last week,' and we bring our A game because it will take our A game to win."
But the Bengals know the A game includes more than Xs and Os.