Bengals sing another song

12-8-03, 4 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

BALTIMORE _ As the Bengals lost what amounted to their first playoff game in 13 years Sunday, head coach Marvin Lewis heard the crowd that used to chant his name chant this:

"Same old Bengals. Same old Bengals. Same old Bengals."

"The only thing that happened today that was wrong is the chant at the end. That's the only thing that was wrong," Lewis said of the boobirds here at M&T Bank Stadium. "What will be fun is we'll prove what we're made of the next few weeks. We'll get a chance to have a little substance to us."

Not really the same old Bengals because while now trail the 8-5 Ravens by a game in the AFC North, they are still a game over .500 at 7-6. They still have a shot to make the playoffs with three games to play against two losing teams at home in San Francisco next week and Cleveland in three weeks in the season finale, and a date in two weeks in the dome of NFC West-leader St, Louis.

Same old Bengals?

Here was right tackle Willie Anderson pulling a Jim Fassel and predicting a playoff berth. Here was quarterback Jon Kitna talking about running the table and reaching the magic number of 10-6. Here was linebacker Adrian Ross saying how Steelers linebacker Joey Porter told him last week that Pittsburgh would take care of Baltimore here in the season finale. Here was Lewis setting the tone in his post-game news conference.

"There's still a lot of football left," he said.

Yes, the chances are now longer than the Bengals' seven-game losing streak in Baltimore and the Ravens' inexorable defensive depth that forced the Bengals into season-highs of six sacks and five turnovers while rudely exposing their needs to be a perennial contender. And, yes, they most likely need to win out.

But instead of pointing fingers at each other after the season's most devastating loss, at least some of these brave, new Bengals felt they had grown up again in this year of growth.

Anderson even guaranteed the Bengals would still make the playoffs and suggested his team needed Sunday's trip into the AFC North version of The House of Pain to understand what playoff football is all about.

"Write it down. We're going to make the playoffs. Because we feel we've done enough work, and if we continue to do the work we've been doing, we're going to play better than we did today," Anderson said. "Today's atmosphere was a playoff atmosphere. Today showed that we have a lot of guys that haven't been there. . .We didn't match their intensity. We should have known they would come out and give us their best shot. That kind of overwhelmed us a little bit because we haven't been there before. But now we've done it, and we're going to learn from it and move on. The same thing with everything else we've done this year."

One Raven agreed, saying of the Bengals, "they're a good team," but he didn't think the Bengals were prepared for the type of aggression Baltimore brought to them.

Let's face it. Three weeks ago, heading into the NFL's only three-game road trip of the season, most players and fans would have taken a deal right then to win two out of three. But the Bengals had smelled the playoffs with victories in San Diego and Pittsburgh the past two weeks, and the clinic the Ravens put them through in front of their rowdy sell-out crowd hurt to the bone because they were so close.

The Bengals could have handled the playoffs on their own with a victory. It would have given them the first two tiebreakers outright and put their magic number at two for the North title. Instead, the Ravens' magic number is three against three teams with a total of 12 wins.

Now, the Bengals have to look at the other wild-card teams such as Miami, Denver, and Tennessee and that is just as daunting.

The 9-4 Titans have a two-game edge on the Bengals. Denver is 8-5, but has the edge in a tie with Cincinnati because the Broncos beat them head-to-head in the regular-season opener. The 8-5 Dolphins are 5-5 in the conference (the next wild-card tiebreaker after head-to-head) and the Bengals are 6-5. If the season was over, the playoff seeds would be in this order: New England, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Tennessee, and Denver.

"Last year, I know it came down to five or six teams at the last game," Anderson said. "It always does."

But the Ravens played and talked like they have been there. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis continued his week-long crusade to intimidate the Bengals after the game by saying the Bengals came in riding high only because they had yet to play in Baltimore.

But quarterback Jon Kitna thought the Bengals weathered the early nerves and the defensive onslaught and still had a shot as they drove down the field early in the fourth quarter, trailing, 24-13, until he threw his first interception in 138 passes and 17 quarters.

"It wasn't that bad. We were there. We were in it," Kitna said. "We'll bounce back. We've done it all year. That shouldn't change it at all. We had it 17-13 on that first drive in the second half. I was concerned what would happen early in the football game, and I thought we handled it."

Marvin Lewis had signed up playoff veterans like middle linebacker Kevin Hardy during the offseason to make days like this easier and cushion the team's transition to a contender..

"It was a playoff atmosphere," said Hardy, a veteran of two AFC title games. "That's the way it is in the NFL this time of year. We knew what the atmosphere was going to be like. We knew the crowd was going to get into it if we let them."

Now the Bengals have to rely on some other teams. Ross, who had to leave the game with a neck injury, said Porter assured him they would get help from the Steelers.

"But we have to take care of our biz," Ross said.

"We can't think about winning the next three," Anderson said. "We can only think about Frisco."

Kitna could only think of some home cooking.

"It's been a long-time coming since we've been home," Kitna said. "I'm really proud the way the team handled that three-game road trip like that. (Winning) on the West Coast, and playing two division opponents perennially tough on you. We'll be all right. No question in my mind. Marvin won't allow us to think any other way."

No doubt Lewis won't let them forget the chant.

"Same old Bengals."

"We're going to bounce back," Anderson said. "We're thinking and doing things that haven't been done around here in 13 years."

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