11-18-03, 10:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
As the Bengals continued to be one of the week's top national sports stories, they cleared their throats after Sunday's victory and introduced themselves to a stretch run.
"Race? There's a race?" joked right tackle Willie Anderson after reaching first place in November for the first time in his roster-high 120 games as a Bengal.
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, engulfed at his locker Monday by media ranging from ESPN to "The Washington Post," to "The Dallas Morning News," recalled, "We go in the tank about Oct. 3 and you don't see us until next season."
Now, you're seeing the first-place Bengals in the final six games of the season smack at the top of the AFC North and the top of the hour sports reports. The numbers say they've got a legit chance to win their first division title and first play-off shot since 1990.
And, as in 1990, they hope a long road trip that includes a victory in California ends in the postseason because they start a three-game road swing this Sunday in San Diego, before going to Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
In emerging as a leading candidate for NFL Coach of the Year, Marvin Lewis has watched his team meet challenges the Bengals haven't met in years. Rebounding from an 0-3 start, establishing a home-field advantage, and beating play-off contenders in October and November have all pushed the Bengals into the mix.
Now, here's the next one. They haven't won in California since 1990. In games from Denver west, they are 0-11 since winning at Seattle in 1994. They haven't won at Pittsburgh since 1999 or Baltimore since 1996.
But if Lewis stays true to form, he'll get them over the hump in the road and steer them to the season finale at home against Cleveland Dec. 28 with a chance to win it.
"The next three games are the telling point of our season," Anderson said. "We have to let go of this Kansas City game by (Tuesday) morning. If we go lay an egg in the next three games, it would be a total embarrassment. But I think Coach Lewis and the coaching staff is going to get us to take these three games more seriously than this game the last week."
The Bengals have a slightly easier schedule than North co-leader Baltimore with their remaining foes having a .433 winning percentage compared to the Ravens' .450. The Ravens get a break with just two of their last six games on the road against the 3-7 Raiders and the 4-6 Browns while getting two North foes at home. The Bengals finish with four of six away games that include those division games in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. P>Two games separate the four North teams with 5-5 Baltimore and Cincinnati leading the pack, Cleveland a game back at 4-6 and the Steelers two back at 3-7. The Steelers have the easiest overall schedule with foes at .366 and Cleveland has the hardest at .550. The Browns have to go on the road to play teams that are playing .600 ball while the Ravens get .350, the Steelers .400 and the Bengals .425 away from home.
Baltimore and Cincinnati each have one team with a winning record left, but the Ravens get Seattle at home Nov. 23 while the Bengals go to St. Louis Dec. 21. Both the Bengals and Ravens have one game left on the West Coast, with Baltimore going to Oakland Dec. 14.
The Steelers have the easiest schedule at home at .333, followed by the Bengals at .450, and the Ravens and Browns each at .500.
"I'd rather it be close than having somebody like Pittsburgh or Baltimore run away with it," Hawkins said. "It gave us an opportunity to get back to No. 1."
Conquering the road could be Lewis' last big obstacle at bringing the Bengals back, but Hardy is keeping it simple.
"The games in the division," said Hardy, when asked what is going to decide it. "They're bonus games. You go one up and they go one back if you win."
Hardy should know as a veteran of playoff runs with coach Tom Coughlin's Jaguars in the late '90s. The Bengals interviewed Coughlin for the job they gave Lewis, but they've got some of Coughlin's mentality via Hardy heading into the season's last 40 days.
"Coughlin broke the season into phases and right now we're in the stretch," Hardy said. "This is when you want to play your best football. In the months of November and December and I think we're playing pretty good football right now.
"I can't stress how key it is to stay focused and not look down the line," said Hardy, who plans to tell his mates exactly that when the team re-convenes Wednesday. "(Coughlin's mentality) was the same thing. Don't get too down after a loss and too high after a win."
Lewis' experiences aren't that much different. Lewis was the linebackers coach on a Steelers team that fell below .500 in an October loss and went on to win the 1995 AFC championship. In his six years in Baltimore, the Ravens were 26-23 in November and December.
"We have big games for the next six games going down the stretch, only if we take care of business the week before," Lewis said. "I've been through it a couple times, both in Pittsburgh and in Baltimore, and both times in midseason, we weren't a whole lot better than this. You know that the team that gets hot, plays well down the stretch, keeps getting better, does the little things, and stays healthy has a chance to go very far.
A linchpin of Lewis' strategy is to flood the roster with players who have been there before. His first foray into free agency netted 35 playoff games, ranging from cornerback Tory James' 11 to defensive end Carl Powell's one. He hopes that big-game experience can solve the woes on the road.
The Bengals last played three in a row on the road during the 3-13 season of 1991 and lost all three. That was the season their road troubles began at 0-8 and started the streak that gives them the worst road record since 1991. But in 1990, they did go 2-3 from Oct. 1-28 in five games on the road that was made necessary by the Reds' World Series victory.
A 34-31 overtime victory over the Rams in Anaheim on Oct. 7, 1990 during that stretch, is their last victory in California. But they also won in San Diego that playoff season.
Lewis has tried to reverse the results by leaving for West Coast games on Friday to give his players an extra day to get acclimated. The Bengals nearly won in Oakland in Week Two, but lost a bitterly disappointing game in Arizona just 16 days ago.
"That helps a lot," said Hawkins of the early departure. "When you leave Saturday, it seems everything is rushed. We're fighting to get to meetings, to dinner, to bed. And if anything bad happens at the airport, we're even later. Friday is better than Saturday."
But as Lewis says, the idea is to make Sunday best.
"I don't really think there's a big deal. With the way we travel, we just have to go play," said Lewis of the differences playing east and west. "We just haven't won. Its just time to go win. We go early, we're there, we're acclimated, we just have to go play. It's just like playing any other road game once we get there. It's just a longer trip home. So let's make that trip home better than the last two have been."