Big Games 101

10-3-01, 8:20 a.m.

John Jackson, one of the three wise men in the Bengals locker room along with Lorenzo Neal and Richmond Webb, flat out laughed.

Someone had the gall to suggest the Bengals had just experienced their first "big game," in the 28-14 loss in San Diego this past Sunday. And along with learning how to win comes learning how to handle the trappings of winning.

Which just didn't sit right with a man who has 13 playoff starts.

"Are you kidding me?" Jackson asked. "It was the third game of the season. That was just one game. You know how much football is left?"

OK, OK. There are 13 games left. There are nine games left in the AFC Central. They open Pittsburgh's new stadium this week, go for their first win in Jacksonville in six years next month, and host perennial playoff power Tampa Bay in December.

OK, OK. Plenty of football left. Plenty of big games. A long way from Oct. 3.

But let's face it. Last week was a different week around Paul Brown Stadium. It was the first time in six years the Bengals had a chance at going 3-0. Throw in the fact they were playing another unexpected 2-0 team and there was the honest-to-goodness big-game, ESPN-CBS-NASDAQ buzz that has been missing for a decade.

Not for Jackson, Webb and Neal, of course. Not with 31 playoff games among them. But this generation of Bengals had never experienced a week like it. Except for the 15 minutes of fame that came with Corey Dillon's record game last year.

A total of 35 of the 53 Bengals are either rookies or have played their entire careers in Cincinnati and have never been to the playoffs. Never mind being 2-0.

Is that why they lost? No. As linebacker Takeo Spikes, said, "It wasn't a Monday night game. . .It was 7-7 at

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the half, they were at home, they got some plays in the third quarter and the crowd got into it."

But it was a different week.

"Oh yeah, you have to learn about that stuff. That's all part of it," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "Ask Baltimore. They tried to sneak in under the radar last year.

"Now everyone wants to know if they can come back to the Super Bowl," Kitna said. "They're on Monday night three times, Sunday night something like three times. That kind of stuff takes its toll and you have to deal with it. Hopefully they will. There are a lot of things that we're learning."

Neal played in five post-season games with the Titans and has seen the good teams react.

"You're not as good as you think you are. You're not as bad as you think," Neal said. "You start feeling good about yourself. There's national TV and people are saying, 'Hey, the Bengals are back.' A great team says, 'We're not going to focus on that. I'm going to go out and we're going to play our game.' That could be because we're young, but we just made some mistakes. That's all. I know they didn't see the Bengals' best. We might have lost some intensity."

Kitna, the math major, has a pretty good formula for big-game intensity. The more you have, the more you lose.

"I really believed that maybe we were a bit too emotional," Kitna said. "Guys were really ready to play and that was great. Believe me, I've been on the other side when guys weren't ready to play and you don't want that. It's just when something bad happens, it's hard to recover because you're so emotionally charged and I think that's what happened to us."

Of course, Kitna, the AFC West veteran who dueled the Chargers for years, was among the most gunned up.

"I could have helped in that," Kitna said, "I was right there with them against that team in that stadium. . .I just think we have to understand when something goes wrong, you don't have to make it up in one play."

It was a week guys rushed home to see the highlights for the first time in their careers. Which was nice, but it was also different.

"I remember what Gary Moeller used to say when we were at Michigan," said tight end Tony McGee of his old coach. "When someone tells you you're good, hit them in the mouth."

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