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Bengals see Sunday Night lights

3-28-02, 1:15 p.m.


For the first time in four years, the NFL has deemed the Bengals ready for prime-time players and have matched Cincinnati against the Falcons in a Sunday night ESPN game.

The Sept. 22 date in Atlanta against quarterback Michael Vick and new Falcons running back Warrick Dunn highlights the Bengals' 2002 schedule released Thursday. They open the season and new coach Marty Schottenheimer's Chargers career at home with a 1 p.m. game Sept. 8 at Paul Brown Stadium against San Diego.

The Bengals also got a favorable bye week six weeks into the season on Oct. 20.

It's the Bengals' first night appearance on national TV since a 31-24 loss in Baltimore on Sept. 27, 1998.

"Vick. Dillon. Spikes. That should be fun," said Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.

"Any kind of exposure would be good right now for the team. It's been a long time.

"That's been a point of contention every year," said Dillon of what the Bengals say among themselves about the lack of TV time. "But the bottom line is if we're not winning, nobody is going to be knocking down your door to put you on TV. In the years to come, I think that's going to change and we're going to get our 15 minutes of fame."

But the powers that be let the Bengals know they are still scrounging for respect. They have no division games in the new AFC North during the final four games of the season and they end the season on Dec. 29 in what will no doubt be chilly Buffalo. At least it provides some symmetry. The Bengals open the preseason in Buffalo Aug. 9.

"I don't want to think about

that one just yet," Dillon said. "It's going to be cold and it's probably going to be snowing."

The Bengals play their first AFC North game ever in the second week of the year in a Sept. 15 game at Cleveland. The Browns come to town Nov. 17 and the Bengals finish off the division schedule in the next two weeks with the North's other teams in a Nov. 24 game in Pittsburgh and a Dec. 1 home game against Baltimore.

Going off last year's schedule, the Bengals have a good shot to start fast and close fast. They don't play a team with a winning record in '01 until they host the Buccaneers in Week 4 on Sept. 29, and five of their first seven games are against teams coming off losing seasons. Three of the first five games are against teams with new coaches in San Diego, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis.

Their last four games are also against teams coming off losing seasons, including the 1-15 Panthers and 3-13 Bills.

"You always wish something could be better with a schedule, but there is nothing that is going to make me sit down and cry," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "I wish the bye week was a little later, but you don't want it real early or real late and this is pretty close to being in the middle. You would prefer to play the division games later. Sometimes they do that when they don't think you're as much of a factor as others.

"But we're pleased to be on Sunday night," Brown said. "It's a sign we're getting a little better. We haven't been on in quite some time and that's good for our fans and players."

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