Bengals to enjoy '04 night life

4-14-4, 5:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The final reward for the NFL's best turnaround in 2003 under head coach Marvin Lewis has turned into Cincinnati's first prime-time doubleheader in history with two night games scheduled for Paul Brown Stadium in 2004.

When the NFL released its schedule Wednesday, the league found the Bengals on the map with the help of their charismatic coach and a former No. 1 draft pick playing quarterback. They broke their 11-year drought on Monday Night Football with an Oct. 25 game against the Broncos at PBS at 9 p.m. on ABC. They open their home schedule on the second week of the season in a Sunday night game against another team that won 10 games last year in the Dolphins on Sept. 19 at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.

"Huge. Absolutely huge," said right tackle Willie Anderson, the dean who is destined to play his first Monday night game in his Bengals-leading 132nd game. "It's one of the things that players look for during the season. It's a big opportunity. Now everyone wants to see how much we've improved. I'm happier for the organization. People are going to get to see that Bengals' logo a lot."

The last time two prime-time audiences in the same season saw it was two logos ago when the Bengals lost to the Steelers on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, but beat the Bears in a Soldier Field overtime, 31-28, on Nov. 8, 1992 in their last Monday Nighter. The last time the Bengals played on Monday Night at home is when Anderson was in junior high in Mobile, Ala., and the Bengals beat the Browns, 21-14, on Sept. 25, 1989 at Riverfront Stadium.

"This is the national spotlight, and we're excited about the opportunity," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "If you're in the NFL, you want to be playing on Monday and Sunday night."

ABC's Monday Night Football had the third-highest rating of any prime-time television show last year, and MNF has an unrivaled track record of 14 consecutive years as a top-10 rated program. ESPN's Sunday Night Football has long been the highest-rated show of any kind on cable television.

The Monday and Sunday night games are the first national broadcasts from PBS, which has won numerous national and world-level design and architecture awards.

Other highlights from the 2004 schedule:

The two candidates the Bengals interviewed before hiring Lewis, Buffalo's Mike Mularkey and the Giants' Tom Coughlin, bring their teams into PBS for back-to-back 1 p.m. Sunday games Dec. 19 and 26, respectively. Bill Parcells, Coughlin's mentor, returns to Cincinnati for the first time since 1997 when he brings the Cowboys here for the first time for a 1 p.m. game Nov. 7.

"I like opening the season on the road," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "There are so many expectations at home for the opener, and if things go bad, it can get rough. Look at what happened last year (in Denver's 30-10 victory). I think teams tend to focus better on the road, and it's going to be good for Carson to get a tough road test right away, and then have a home game the next week."

Ironically, the last time the Bengals opened a season on the road was when they played Thornton's Titans in 1999, and they had an upset victory in sight until Tennessee's Al Del Greco kicked the winning field goal with eight seconds left.

But the big things that have the locker room buzzing are the two night games. For years the Bengals have been known as "America's 1 P.M. Team," with just two prime time games in the last six seasons. And, the last time they had a prime time game at home the Titans were called the Oilers and running back Corey Dillon was happy. That's the night he broke Jim Brown's single-game rookie rushing record on Dec. 4, 1997 in a Thursday ESPN game.

"Playing the Dolphins on Sunday night is beautiful. I can't wait. I know all the Dolphins so that is going to be really fun," said Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson, a Miami native. "I don't need the exposure. I've already got enough. But it's going to be great for the fans. The place is going to be packed for those games, but I think we'll sell out everyone this year."

Johnson already had special garb planned for the Miami game, now everyone is going to see his shoes and gloves that match the black stripes of the Bengals' helmet.

But not everyone is overjoyed with a Monday Night game. Thornton played in three one year while with the Titans.

"I think it's great for the fans. Everyone is going to be going nuts," Thornton said. "But it throws your whole week off and then you have to come back to a short week for the next game. You have to sit around all day Sunday and that's tough. If it were up to me, I'd like to be done as early as possible every Sunday at 1 p.m."

But it looks like those days are gone in Bengaldom for at least awhile. Anderson noticed how the prime-time games pit his team against two of the NFL's most visible clubs in the Dolphins and Broncos. They are two of the seven teams that have been on Monday Night at least 50 times, with Oakland, Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington the others.

"The good teams, the successful teams always get there," Anderson said. "They're used to being there and it's a big part of their season. A chance to show the world, really, how good they are. It's big for us."

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