12-6-03, 8 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Boomer Esiason, monitoring for the CBS studio the Bengals' biggest game since he quarterbacked them to the 1990 playoffs, has no qualms about how Sunday's game will be played and decided.
"It's going to be nasty, hard, cold, brutal game, and the team that stops the run and makes the fewest turnovers is going to win," Esiason said. "It's going to be ugly."
Solomon Wilcots, the CBS analyst for Sunday's game who also started for that last Bengals' playoff team, believes his defensive descendants have more to defend with Anthony Wright now quarterbacking the Ravens.
"They are no longer as one dimensional as they were when they played them the last time," said Wilcots of the Bengals' 34-26 victory back on Oct. 19.
Even though Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson plays offense, he knows it's December and a tight playoff race.
"We're playing for the division championship," Anderson said. "Like always, defense wins championships. I think it's going to come down to the two defenses."
At first glance, that looks like a mismatch because the Ravens are second in the league in rushing the ball and fourth in defense, the two primary ingredients of playoff football. Plus, Baltimore's third-down defense (allowing firsts just 30.5 percent of the time for a No.3 NFL ranking) is a match for a Bengals' offense converting at 46.3 percent for second in the league.
But except for the Steelers' final drive of the game last week in Pittsburgh, the Bengals have to like what their defense has done since they beat Baltimore and have won six of the last seven.
Despite playing three of the top four AFC rushers in that stretch (the Ravens' Jamal Lewis, the Chiefs Priest Holmes, the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson), the Bengals beat those teams by not allowing those guys to get rolling and winning the time of possession in each of those games. Lewis barely got his 100 yards (101) and Tomlinson nearly did (95), but they never got into a groove.
And despite Wright's promotion and the emergence of wide receiver Marcus Robinson in the past two weeks, the Bengals' focus looks to be unflinching in its effort to contain Lewis, the 240-pounder who has pin-balled to the NFL rushing lead all season.
"They're the same team, they've just got a different quarterback,' said Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons. "We know what they do offensively revolves around No. 31 (Lewis). That's no different. They like to get the ball down the field with Wright, but it's all based on No. 31. They haven't done anything drastic to change the offense."
The Bengals don't view it all that much differently as they did back in October when they played Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller. They respect Wright's experience, mobility, and arm, but they know Baltimore is in first place because of Lewis.
Plus, the Ravens' offense has feasted on their defense's turnovers. Last week against the Niners, they got their first 37 points on drives totaling 95 yards, got 28 of their 44 points off turnovers, and seven more on a 75-yard kick return.
"(Wright) is more dangerous in the sense he has more experience, and has more confidence in himself to throw the ball deep and make some plays," said middle linebacker Kevin Hardy. "At the same time, he's not a seasoned veteran, so I don't think we're going in thinking he's really going to beat us with the pass."
Still, in the last two games, Wright has thrown five passes of at least 22 yards and has six touchdown passes. And the Bengals look to be hurting in the secondary because their No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks, Jeff Burris (concussion) and Artrell Hawkins (knee) are questionable at best.
"They're very formidable in there with this guy now," Hawkins said. "The best thing he does is create plays when there's nothing there, and Robinson is a big strong guy who is playing like he did in Chicago a few years ago. Then you've got that guy, No. 31? Oh, yeah. Jamal Lewis. That guy. We've got our work cut out for us."
A week after tall Plaxico Burress wreaked havoc for the Steelers against the Bengals, here comes the 6-3, 215-pound Robinson leaping up and tearing the ball away from defenders for those 131 yards against Seattle two weeks ago. But he's done it before. It was his eighth 100-yard game.
"We're going to have to attack the ball," said safety Kevin Kaesviharn. "We're going to have to get to the spot, go after the ball, and make sure we put our body between the ball and receiver."
That wasn't done in Pittsburgh, where Burress and Hines Ward combined for 261 yards. And it has been discussed.
For some reason, we were soft," said Kaesviharn of the pass coverage, particularly on the last drive in which nine of 10 passes were completed. "It was like the old saying. The prevent defense prevents you from winning. We know you can't win playing like that. It wasn't a scheme thing or anything like that. There are some games once in awhile where you don't play as tight for whatever reason, but we know we've got to tighten it up."
HISTORY WITH TWIST: History goes on a fly pattern Sunday when it comes to Paul Brown and Art Modell again. Brown's Bengals and Modell's Ravens write the final chapter in one of sports' most intense rivalries on a snowy field in Baltimore in what very well could be the AFC North championship game.
"The players nowadays, I'm sure they're out there buying Madden '04 and have no idea about the Bengals and Browns and PB and Modell," said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason.
But two guys who do are Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and one of his champions, Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome. Lewis sees the irony as clearly as Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis' No. 52 stalking the offense.
In Modell's last season as owner, the late Paul Brown's team is the one club standing in the way of one final playoff run. The Bengals. The team that Paul Brown began five years after Modell fired him as coach of the team that still bears Brown's name.
Lewis worked for Modell for six years in Baltimore and is grateful for his support during a tumultuous franchise move that transformed the Cleveland Browns into the Ravens. Mike Brown, Paul's son, hired Lewis to revive the Bengals and gave him his first head-coaching job. The gratitude caught on Lewis' voice when he awarded Mike Brown a game ball after the win over the unbeaten Chiefs last month in what now looks to be the watershed game of the new regime.
Mike Brown hasn't uttered a word to Lewis about "The Rivalry." Sunday's game stands on its own. Besides, Brown knows Lewis was four years old when Modell did the deed and it was just so long ago, and Brown has never gone for any non-football hype, anyway.
"I'm sure PB is looking down Sunday," Lewis said wistfully Friday. "It just goes to say that the owner has the right to hire who he wants to hire, and who he wants as his head coach. It was true in 1962 and it's true in 2003. It hasn't changed. The thing it showed me is that it doesn't matter. When you own the team, you need to put people in place that you feel most comfortable with.
"Sometimes people make decisions before they know enough about what they're supposed to know enough about," Lewis said. "And looking back at it, (Modell) may change it. Art's been great with me."
Lewis has read the book. "PB: The Paul Brown Story," in which Brown wrote his life story with Jack Clary. After reading the book and working with his family daily, Lewis thinks he knows the franchise's founder pretty well. He sees at least one similarity with Brown and Modell. If their feud was black-and-white, they were both colorblind when it came to finding the best people to help them win.
In his 11 months on the job, Lewis has shown an affinity for players and coaches he already knows. He can relate to how Brown built teams at Ohio State, Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and Cleveland.
"He always surrounded himself with players he knew and he knew a lot about," Lewis said. "From the time he went to coach at Ohio State, having been a successful high school coach as far as recruiting, he knew which guys he wanted to bring to Ohio State. Later on, when he went to coach at the military base, he got all the guys that played at Ohio State and the Big Ten. And when he went to coach the Browns, he got all the guys on his team at the base or Ohio State. He knew what to expect from them."
During that stretch, Brown is regarded as the first pro coach who regularly signed African-American players.
"He didn't care," said Lewis, the eighth African-American to be a NFL head coach. "As long as they could play football, they were going to be on his team."
While Brown took on barriers in the 'late '40s and '50s, Modell took them on 40 years later in the front office. Newsome, the Browns' Hall of Fame tight end from the late '70s and early '80s, became the major architect of Modell's 2000 Super Bowl champions in Baltimore in blazing another trail for African-Americans.
"Art didn't hire just me," Newsome said. "There were guys like James Harris, John Wooten, Paul Warfield. Art has given me everything I need to succeed. If he feels like you can do the job, he's going to go with you no matter what."
The Browns-Bengals, and therefore Brown-Modell, was a thing to behold in the '80s.
Casey Coleman, son of the late Ken Coleman, the Browns' estimable play-by-play announcer when Brown coached Cleveland to the NFL elite in the 1950s, remembers visiting PB on the sly in the '70s at the Bond Court Hotel whenever the Bengals played in Cleveland.
By then, Casey worked in Browns' TV and radio, but there was still a tie because Brown had been over his house as a kid and knew the family well. But Coleman feared he'd get in a jam with management if it knew he had met with the man the night before the game.
"You still run into people in Cleveland that stopped being fans of the Browns the day Art fired Paul," Coleman said.
On a day game in Cleveland in the '70s, the story goes, the Bengals' bus pulled up at the stadium at the same time Modell pulled his car into a parking spot. They got out of their vehicles at about the same time, never acknowledging the other.
But Newsome and Esiason say the two never injected themselves into the rivalry as they got it on in the '80s.
"The players never got the sense from Art in the locker room that it was a thing about beating Paul Brown," Newsome said. "It was always big just because twice a year it meant you were playing for the division."
The Bengals have always said there was a certain snap-crackle-pop in the air during Cleveland week.
"But it came from Sam (Wyche), not PB," said Esiason of the head coach. "He made sure he let us know how important the game was for him, and of course it was an easy thing to see because PB was still walking around."
Ravens-Bengals certainly hasn't had the same feel since Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995. Some like Coleman argue that it wasn't the same once Brown passed in 1991 training camp.
But on Sunday, in 2003, well, just like Brown and Modell, there are similarities.
"We had just got through the '70s with the Steelers as the team to beat," Newsome said. "Then, in the '80s, when we were ready to take over, this team from down south kept making it a battle. It seemed like we were always playing for the division title two or thee games left in the season."
If Lewis knows Brown is watching, Newsome knows Modell is, too.
"He's mentioned he'd like to go out on top," Newsome said. "We'd love to get him back to the Super Bowl."
One final bump-and-run into history.
MATCHUPS:** Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. The Bengals have committed one turnover in the last three games, two in the last four, and just two in their seven victories. Meanwhile, the Ravens have forced eight turnovers in the last three games, and 12 in the last four.
But they made 13 penalties last week and 34 in the last three games during a stretch only the Raiders made more. The Bengals are at six and 17, and respectively.
Ravens QB Anthony Wright is having a nice run off the bench, Jeff Blakeish in fact, but Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have no doubt been scheming in an effort to reveal his inexperience. Wright has thrown only 15 more NFL passes than the rookie he is replacing.
The Bengals didn't run the ball effectively against the Ravens six weeks ago and they gave up a season-high four sacks, but they won because the offensive line supplied enough time for big plays in the passing game, so Bengals RT Willie Anderson and LT Levi Jones have to keep away Ravens LE Anthony Weaver and ROLB Peter Boulware. But they're going to have to run the ball this trip to keep the crowd and the Ravens' defense out of the game, meaning Bengals C Rich Braham and Bengals RG Mike Goff and LG Eric Steinbach have to play like they did the last time against Ravens MLB Ray Lewis. Rookie Bengals WR Kelley Washington is now a factor compared to Oct. 19 and has to get something done one-on-one against Ravens CB Corey Fuller.
For all the talk about Wright and WR Marcus Robinson, the Bengals' defense still has to contain their two most dangerous players. Bengals MLB Kevin Hardy looks to lead the charge against Ravens RB Jamal Lewis and S Mark Roman tries to stop Ravens TE Todd Heap. But the Bengals have to be wary of the big play and Bengals S Kevin Kaesviharn has to get his third-down secondary to aggressively play the ball in the air against Ravens WR Marcus Robinson.
The Ravens give you a lot of problems on special teams, led by the deadly accuracy of kicker Matt Stover. But the unit sparked by Bengals RB Brandon Bennett must make sure Ravens S Ed Reed and Ravens KR Lamont Brightful don't blow up what is probably going to be a one-play game.
LEWIS, FRAZIER VS. WRIGHT:Wright has been immense, showing fine mobility and a strong arm. But he has made just eight career NFL starts and came into this season with five touchdown passes, eight interceptions, and a completion percentage of 46 percent. The Bengals have to find a way to get him back to those Dallas numbers.
ANDERSON, JONES VS. WEAVER, BOULWARE:** The Ravens lead the AFC in sacks, are second in the AFC, and Boulware has five sacks in the last six games. Jones responded to another Pro Bowl challenge last week in Pittsburgh when he blanked Joey Porter.
"(Boulware) is quick, very good from side to side, he's a good change-up defensive end," Jones said. "You have to be aware who you're blocking, because some times they'll put one of the tackles out there. You block different guys differently, you just have to make sure you focus on that guy at that time."
Weaver, a relentless intense player who is their best defensive lineman, had a big game in Cincinnati when he logged the first two of his five sacks. **
BRAHAM, GOFF, STEINBACH VS. LEWIS:The Bengals held Lewis to one of his least productive games of the season, if you call nine tackles not very productive. The key is he didn't cause, and wasn't on the receiving end, of any turnovers. Braham calls the Ravens' defensive looks the most confusing schemes in the league and he'll have to decipher them for his mates.
WASHINGTON VS. FULLER:** In his last two games, Washington has six catches, two touchdowns, and two receptions for at least 30 yards.
He had no catches against the Ravens last time, and found himself laughing this week at his film from that game because of his frequent mistakes. Washington prides himself on one-on-one play, and Fuller is a good one-on-one player, but only if he's stronger than the wideout and Washington is a beast in a physical game.
HARDY VS. LEWIS: As the Bengals knew going in the last time, you need to gang tackle Lewis and not let him get a head of steam. The Bengals did that against Jerome Bettis last week, but Lewis is Lewis. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry at home, and has four 100-yard games there this season. The Bengals have allowed one 100-yard game on the road this season, last month in Arizona to Marcel Shipp. **
ROMAN VS. HEAP:** Roman won't be the only guy on Heap, a player the Ravens use like a wide receiver, splitting him out and sending him downfield. The Bengals had no answer for him six weeks ago, when Heap had his only 100-yard day of the year with 129 yards on seven catches. He hasn't had more than 64 yards since.
KAESVIHARN VS. ROBINSON: What has been a rare tentative day by the secondary burned them against the Steelers last week. They need some picks. Since getting three against Seattle Oct. 26, they have just two, and maybe their best ballhawk, Kaesviharn, is looking for his first of the season.
BENNETT VS. REED AND BRIGHTFUL: Bennett spearheaded a solid special teams effort last week, capped by his 27-yard kick return to set up the winning touchdown drive. Now this week they face Brightful, fourth in AFC kick returns and a week removed from a 75-yarder.
Reed is the most feared punt blocker in the league with four blocked punts in 28 career games, and he's picked three of them up for touchdowns.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's first-place showdown in Baltimore, including 13 and seven, along with 27 and 15. The first set is the Bengals' NFL-low giveaways for the season and their total on the road. The second is the Ravens' fourth highest turnover total in the league, and the number they've forced at home.
0_ Bengals' victories since Baltimore's M&T Stadium opened in 1998.
24 _ Points Bengals scored in four M&T games against the units of Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis from 1998-2001.
3 _ Shutouts Lewis' defense posted against the Bengals in four M&T games.
8 _ NFL starts by Ravens quarterback Anthony Wright.
3 _ Interceptions thrown by Wright in three starts this season.
3 _Interceptions thrown by Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna in the seven games since the bye week.
134.5 _ Average rushing yards for Ravens running back Jamal Lewis in six home games.
108 _ Average rushing yards the Bengals are giving up in road games.
12/2/90 _ Date of last time Bengals beat a winning team on the road, 16-12 in Pittsburgh.
6 _ Sacks by left end and team leader Duane Clemons this season
6.5 _ Team-leading sacks by right end Justin Smith in 2002.
6-11 _ Bengals' record in December games since 1999.
11-5 _ Ravens' record in December games since head coach Brian Billick arrived in 1999.