BY GEOFF HOBSON
Remember the Titans?
Before Tennessee came within a yard of winning last year's Super Bowl, kicker Al DelGreco first had to go 33 yards with eight seconds left for a field goal to devastate the Bengals, 36-35, in the '99 opener.
The Bengals can't forget what happened and the Titans won't forget.
How Tennessee scored 10 points in the final 4:30 on the clock in its new stadium. How the Titans used that win to fuel an undefeated home record and the AFC championship. How the Bengals never recovered and didn't beat a non-expansion team until the 12th game of the season.
"They went on to win the AFC championship and went to the Super Bowl and it could have easily been us," said Bengals running back Corey Dillon. "If we got that first win and took the initiative like they did, who's to say? On the road. Very big."
A Bengals' win against the Titans in Sunday's 1 p.m., game would be their first in five games this season, first ever at Paul Brown Stadium, and some think it could be as ground-breaking as Tennessee's victory.
"I really believe we're one win away from changing this whole thing around," said Bengals quarterback Akili Smith. "I can honestly say that."
If it happens, Smith will have to come up big against the NFL's No. 5 defense. How tough is this league? Miami's defense that gave up just its second touchdown of the year last week to Cincinnati's last-rated offense is ranked only ninth.
But honestly, something memorable usually happens when the Bengals play the Titans/Oilers.
Ranging from Sam Wyche waving good-bye to Jerry Glanville, to Dillon breaking Jim Brown's single-game rookie rushing record, to last year's game that turned when Smith was no help after starting quarterback Jeff Blake had to leave the game midway through the fourth quarter with leg cramps. To Bengals all-time receiver Carl Pickens returning as a Titan. . . .
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Smith missed the first 27 practices of training camp because of a holdout and coach Bruce Coslet didn't want to risk a mistake and benched him when they were deep in their own territory. That's where he turned to another rookie who had been in camp, Scott Covington.
"We let one down there slip away and I wasn't prepared," Smith said. "Let's hope we can get one here that we should have had down there."
If the Bengals get it, it's because Smith plays the best he's ever played in his ninth NFL start.
"It's no secret what they're going to do," Dillon said of a defense led by strong safety Blaine Bishop .
"They're going to put eight men at the line of scrimmage and I know that's going to be their motto ("Stop Corey Dillon.") He (Bishop) is going to blitz on the pass and try to stone the run."
Which means like the Browns and Jaguars, the Titans are going to dare Smith to have the first big passing day of his career against them because many times Tennessee leaves the outside receivers in one-on-one coverage.
"Tennessee is a lot more in-your-face-type defense," said Smith after struggling against Miami's more conservative fronts. With (Jevon) Kearse and Bishop roaming back there, it makes it kind of hard. I pray to God the running game is what it was last week."
The Bengals have always run the ball decently against Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher's version of Buddy Ryan's all-out scheme. In last year's opener, with the Titans linebackers so busy turning their backs on the pocket when they bumped the Bengals wide receivers into zones, Blake ran for 90 of the Bengals' 201 rushing yards.
And Dillon thinks he still may be paying for the 246 yards he racked up three years ago in breaking Brown's record. In the following four games against the Titans, he has 318 yards.
"It's been tough running the ball against them in the years since," Dillon said. "I have to go in there and take what I can get. I think (the Titans) emphasized stopping the run a little bit since that happened. That's what they want to do. Stop the run. They know it. I know it."
Since Coslet's resignation, there has been an ever so subtle shift in emphasis on the running game. In last year's opener, the Bengals ran the ball 42 times and passed 34 times even though they trailed at one point, 26-7, in the second quarter. Two months later in Cincinnati, when the Bengals fell behind, 14-0, in the first quarter, Blake threw 32 times compared to Dillon's 14 carries. No one around the Bengals thinks that ratio will be repeated Sunday.
But even if he doesn't pass much, Smith knows he has to complete the ones he gets to lift that NFL-low 44 percent completion percentage.
"I have to escalate each week," Smith said. "Individually, I think I've been getting better each week. I can't have a week where I have a downfall. I want to have a good first half and a great second half and keep staying with the progression."
After playing 29 solid minutes against Miami last week before it blew up in a 31-16 loss, the Bengals are like their quarterback. They need to put two halves together.
"We're trying to maintain what we had going against Miami for four quarters," Dillon said. "We've got 12 weeks left. We can put something together in 12 weeks."
The Bengals would like to do this week what the Titans did last year.