The Bengals are 9-9 in their last 18 games against the defending Super Bowl champs, 6-5 at home and 2-1 at Paul Brown Stadium.
It's not known what their record is against reigning Sportsmen of the Year, which Saints quarterback Drew Brees accepted from Sports Illustrated on Tuesday. Back in New Orleans on Wednesday after the New York City whirlwind, Brees was still flying in his conference call with the Cincinnati media.
"I look at that list and I go, 'Are you sure you have the right guy?' I mean, look at the list," Brees said. "It's Muhammad Ali, it's Michael Jordan, it's Joe Montana, it's Bill Russell, it's Arnold Palmer, it's Jack Nicklaus, I mean the list goes on and on. You sit there and shake your head and say 'Man, to even be in the same sentence with these people is kind of unfathomable.' I feel very much like I'm just representing the city of New Orleans and my team for all we've been able to accomplish over the last five years. It was a tremendous honor to be there."
It works out as well as an award ceremony script. Brees returns to the scene of his first NFL start eight years later in Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the Bengals at PBS. In the 2002 opener, Brees hit 79 percent of his passes for the Chargers (15-of-19 for 160 yards, two TDs) in San Diego's 34-6 victory.
How close was Brees to starting for Cincinnati that day instead of Gus Frerotte? Preparing for the 2001 draft, Bengals president Mike Brown felt Brees worthy of the fourth pick. But in a draft room just two years removed from drafting a failed quarterback at No. 3 and unconvinced that a 6-foot quarterback out of a spread offense qualified as top five stuff, his idea got no traction.
The Bengals weren't alone. Brees lasted until No. 32 at the top of the second round but with Cincy picking at No. 36, Brown wasn't going to let him go by twice. The Bengals still made out all right. At No. 4 they got a productive defensive end in Justin Smith and at No. 36 they got Chad Ochocinco, a five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver. Both are still playing. So is Brees, and with No. 4 numbers.
And he did make it to the Bengals record book.
His 510 yards on Nov. 19, 2006 in the Bengals 31-16 victory in New Orleans is just three shy of the most passing yards against Cincinnati that Phil Simms fired at the Bengals in a 1985 game at Riverfront Stadium.
"We turned the ball over at least three times, maybe four. So that will get you beat. That was a different team on both sides, us and them," Brees said. "I don't look to that game and put much into it. We're going on the road. Don't know what the weather conditions will be, but we'll handle that, whatever they are. What I see on film is a talented defense that's suffered a lot of injuries, mainly in the secondary. But coming off a few extra days rest, they'll be ready to play us."
(For the record, it was four turnovers, three of them interceptions. And the forecast for Sunday is no snow but a game-time temperature in the low 30s with a wind about 15 miles per hour.)
The only starter on the Bengals defense from that game is cornerback Johnathan Joseph, a rookie then. Brees doesn't remember him playing and Joseph may not Sunday as he tries to fight through a high ankle sprain. But Brees knows who he is now as he went through the differences then and now.
"I think just to start, when I look at their corner position, Leon Hall wasn't there and Joseph wasn't there, either," said Brees, who didn't remember Joseph's seven tackles. "You have two top-flight corners in my opinion playing now that you didn't then. As far as the scheme that Coach (Mike) Zimmer's brought, it's a little more exotic than what they had then as far as some of the pressure packages. You've got to be ready to prepare for all of those things. We only face an AFC team once every four years, unless you play in the Super Bowl. There's always a little extra time to study the scheme and the new personnel."
Brees is all over the place. He's on the cover of the biggest S.I. issue of the year. He's on the cover of the *2010 NFL Record and Fact Book *as the MVP of the Super Bowl. Brees is also one of six incumbents that remained on the NFL Players Association's executive committee as the NFL braces for a showdown over the collective bargaining agreement.
But he sounded upbeat despite the impasse.
"I think we're all encouraged just because there has been a lot of communication going back and forth,' he said. "I think both sides are whittling away at a lot of the issues. There is still a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations to be had. But it seems like everyone is moving in the right direction. We all want to get a deal done. It's just a matter of getting the right deal done."
He admits the 18-game schedule isn't an easy point for the negotiators. It goes beyond two extra game checks, he says.
"How does adding two extra games affect your chance of serious injury?" Brees asked. "It's definitely going to go up. How is that going to affect our long-term medical coverage? How is that going to affect the offseason program and the preseason and training camp? There's a lot of issues that need to be addressed when you start talking about extending the regular season."