Braham mulling surgery

10-1-01, 7:05 p.m. Updated:
10-1-01, 3:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals could have a problem at center, where starter Rich Braham may need season-ending surgery on a herniated neck disc and backup Brock Gutierrez is nursing three small broken bones in his back.

But Braham, who turns 31 next month, thinks he can play with the injury and is seeking a second opinion after neurosurgeon Bill Tobler recommended surgery following Monday's MRI exam.

"Richie thinks he did it in the first game, so he's had it for three weeks and played with it," said Bengals trainer Paul Sparling. "It's not life threatening. It would be a question of possible permanent impairment down the road if there were complications. But he doesn't have the classic symptoms of numbness, tingling, weakness that would automatically disqualify him."

Sparling said Gutierrez can play, but it would be "a question of durability." Gutierrez was active Sunday but didn't play after injuring his back blocking on a kick return a week ago against Baltimore. Gutierrez said, "I can go. I could have played yesterday."

The Bengals, who don't list a third-string center, now may be in the market. Right guard Mike Goff is the next option, but has only played center in pre-season games. Rookie guard Victor Leyva has worked some at center, but he's learning the position.

All of Gutierrez's seven NFL starts came last year when Braham was inactive after arthroscopic knee surgery and he was the center when running back Corey Dillon rushed for 415 yards in back-to-back games against Denver and Cleveland. **

DRAFT BOARD SHINES:** The Bengals draft board broke into the bigs Sunday here at Qualcomm Stadium.

But first-rounder Justin Smith and second-rounder Chad Johnson couldn't have been less impressed with their respective first sack and first touchdown catch of their careers.

Probably because they came in their first NFL loss.

"I don't know. I can't remember," Smith said when asked to savor his second-quarter sack of Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie. "That's what I'm supposed to do."

For the record, Smith

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shot through left tackle Damon McIntosh and left guard Raleigh Roundtree to nail Flutie for a 13-yard loss and set up the drive that gave Johnson his touchdown.

Johnson had a variety of moments. After his first NFL catch - a leaping 20-yarder that converted a third-and-12 - Johnson let a Jon Kitna pass bounce off his hands on third-and-eight and into the hands of cornerback Ryan McNeil.

Johnson got his revenge on McNeil with 24 seconds left in the first half. Kitna anticipated a blitz from the Chargers 8, saw Johnson one-on-one with McNeil, and lofted a strike over Johnson's shoulder.

"The touchdowns are going to come," Johnson said. "I want the wins. I'm not worried about the touchdowns and the catches."

Johnson, who finished with two catches for 28 yards, said he didn't even want the ball as a keepsake.

By the way, the fade pattern was similar to the one Carl Pickens baked McNeil for the two-yard touchdown pass from Akili Smith that beat the Browns with five seconds left in '99.

But it was McNeil's day Sunday. He had an another interception with 1:04 left in the game for his NFL-leading fifth.

THIS AND THAT:Marcellus Wiley, the Chargers' high-priced off-season acquisition, made his San Diego debut in a start at left defensive end. It's been a little more than three weeks since Wiley broke his foot and had a screw inserted. He beat right tackle Willie Anderson for a sack late in the game. . .

If the Bengals had won, would they have been on the cover of "Sports Illustrated"? The game between the teams that before Sunday were 28-53 since the 1996 opener, was the only game SI is staffing this week. NFL writer Mike Silver spent part of Saturday talking to some players before and after their meetings.

Probably not. Baseball home run king Barry Bonds should be a lock for the next SI cover. **

SIX RECEIVERS:** When backup free safety Darryl Williams' foot sprain didn't respond before Sunday's game, the Bengals decided to deactivate him for the first time in his six seasons with the club. But Williams is probable for next Sunday's game in Pittsburgh.

With Williams and backup rookie linebacker Riall Johnson (rib) inactive, the Bengals went into a game with more than four wide receivers for the first time this season. Danny Farmer and rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh celebrated returns to their home of

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southern California by dressing for the first time in '01.

Houshmandzadeh, a seventh-round pick, hasn't been available since he bruised his foot in the Aug. 10 pre-season game in Detroit. He made his NFL debut when he returned a punt for 10 yards in the fourth quarter. That's now the Bengals' longest punt return of the season.

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