BY GEOFF HOBSON
What exactly do the Bengals have to do in the season's final three games against playoff contenders who have combined for just 15 losses for Dick LeBeau to remain head coach of the Bengals for the next few seasons?
One win? Two wins? Run the table? Three quality (read close) losses?
No one knows.
But the players know what won't get LeBeau, the players' choice, retained.
If the Bengals' defense doesn't stand up to Tennessee Pro Bowl running back Eddie George this Sunday any better than the 181-yard effort he offered in Cincinnati Oct. 8.
Or to Jacksonville's top ten offense the next week. Or to the league-leading 7.6 yards per rush of Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb on Christmas Eve. Then could the Bengals bring back the defensive coordinator as the head coach?
"We have to realize if we want him back, we have to go above and beyond the call of duty," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes of his unit. "We have to do what needs to be done. But not only for LeBeau, but for ourselves because this season is pretty much over."
But not for guys like Spikes or Bengals President Mike Brown. Brown indicates he's using the last three weeks to help gauge not only his coaches, but the players and the sytems they use.
An ugly, non-competitive-throw-in-the-towel stretch the last three weeks probably won't bode well for anybody.
"It isn't as though we're playing teams that are going through the motions," Brown said of criticism his team always seems to finish against clubs with no stake in the matter. "We'll get a true measure on just where we are."
Where the Bengals are is 3-10 and scoring just a dozen points per game with a defense vulnerable to the big play. And at one of the crossroads in their history.
"I saw a quote where someone said this is our Super Bowl and if you look at it, that's true," said free safety Darryl Williams of Sunday's game against the last Super Bowl runnerup.
"Because no one expects us to win," Williams said. "I'm sure if you ask anybody outside this room, nobody would say we've got a chance."
LeBeau would like to take the crucial fork in the road after the season and Brown would probably like him to take it if there's not any mishaps at the end of the path.
"If we fold up against these guys and all of them are playoff contenders, they won't let up," Spikes said. "We'll get embarrassed. I kind of told them that. I just told them if we don't play hard, we're going to get embarrassed."
Except for the red-faced 48-28 loss to Pittsburgh Nov. 26, the defense has usually played well enough to win. But in the last month, it has allowed an alarming number of big passing days (Kordell Stewart is the only quarterback not to throw for at least 244 yards in the past five games) . . .
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and big passing plays (the Bengals have allowed 10 passes of 24 yards or more in the past five games) in getting ranked 21st overall.
"It's key for a lot of different reasons," said middle linebacker Adrian Ross. "It's a good game to see how far we've come and learned from our mistakes. I don't think we're so much thinking about the coaching situation. I know for myself that I'm playing to get a job for next year."
The 23-14 loss to the Titans back on Oct. 8 was LeBeau's second game as coach. Since then, Cincinnati is 3-5 and LeBeau has won praises from his players for giving the Bengals a smashmouth mentality.
Ironically, now the Bengals know they have to stop the Titans' smash-mouth attack to show how far LeBeau has brought them.
The Titans are 10-3 with virtually no passing game. Last Sunday they didn't score a touchdown despite getting to the Eagles 26 or closer in a game they needed Al Del Greco's five field goals to win, 15-13. Their top three wide receivers have just 89 catches and five touchdowns thanks to a spate of injuries.
But the Bengals are also beat up defensively. Left end Vaughn Booker (knee) and cornerback Rodney Heath (shoulder) are gone. Linemen John Copeland, Michael Bankston, and Tom Barndt have been hobbled all year. Middle linebacker Armegis Spearman, the rookie playing for injured Pro Bowl candidate Brian Simmons, is nursing a sore shoulder.
Maybe that's why Spikes asked Friday to see where the Bengals stand in the NFL in allowing yards per rush.
He may have been a tad surprised to see 3.9, making the Bengals one of eight teams giving less than 4.0
Which means, the Bengals' pass rush, which has just seven sacks in the past five games, has to find a way to get past a Tennessee offensive line that's allowed the fifth fewest sacks in the league with 23.
"Pick your poison," said Williams, when asked if he would play on the line of scrimmage to stop George or help out on the pass in the secondary.
How the Bengals handle Sunday's dose may go a long way in deciding what next year's mix will be.