Bengals need fast start

4-12-01, 3:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' last stand in the AFC Central as we know it features home games against the AFC's last two Super Bowl teams, a well-placed bye week, and a gut-check of a season-ending stretch against the league's elite.

The NFL Thursday released its 2001 schedule, the last before the league re-aligns next season into eight four-team divisions to accommodate expansion Houston.

For the third straight year, the Bengals have no prime-time television appearances. They play every game but one on Sundays at 1 p.m. The Bengals play a 4:15 p.m. game in San Diego Sunday, Sept. 30.

A year after beginning the season with a bye, the Bengals have a Patriotic home opener against New England Sept. 9. Now the bye comes right in the middle of the season, after the eighth game, on Nov. 4.

"That's the most attractive part of the schedule," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "It's perfect timing."

The Bengals also play two division rivals each in September and October and three each in November and December.

"We asked that the league spread out our division games through the season and not bunch them early on, like a few years ago," said Bengals President Mike Brown.

"Opening at home is always good and the bye is helpful later in the season. It was undesirable last year."

For a team that is 6-31 in September and 6-33 in October since 1991,

the first half of the schedules smiles on them. But not in the second half.

Although the Bengals play Super Bowl XXXIV runnerup Tennessee and Super Bowl XXXV champion Baltimore back-to-back on Sept. 16 and 23, four of their first eight foes had losing records last season with a combined record of 57-71.

But it changes as quickly as the weather. After the bye, the Bengals play teams with a 70-58 record. If that's not tough enough, the league's worst pass offense finishes the season against Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, the Jets, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, all top 12 defenses.

"Look at a stretch like that and it's like the Bataan Death March," Brown said. "We were hoping to play Pittsburgh at home much earlier. A lot of people drive over from there, but I don't know how many will be doing that on December 30."

Up until three years go, the NFL had a policy that it would make an effort to get every team on prime time TV at least once each season. But now the cutoff is a 4-12 record, so the Falcons (4-12) and Chargers (1-15) join the Bengals (4-12) as the only not ready for prime time players.

Cleveland (3-13) and Arizona (3-13) were excused because the Browns are opening Pittsburgh's new stadium and the NFL wanted to give the Cardinals an early-season night home game because of the heat.

"We're a 1 o'clock football team," Brown said. "That's our own doing. We've done it to ourselves. We haven't won enough to be treated differently. They don't treat the down teams as generous as they used to. It's something we would like, but we have to win. They do it for television ratings."

LeBeau has been preaching smash-mouth football, so he should love a schedule that has no warm weather sites from Nov. 18 until the end of the season.

"If you grew up playing football in the mid west, there's no such thing as warm weather," LeBeau said. "Cold weather's OK with us."

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