BY GEOFF HOBSON
The music blared the last time the Bengals prepared for the Browns. And Cincinnati ended up hitting one of the biggest sour notes in franchise history during the 24-7 loss that nearly closed down Paul Brown Stadium the day it opened.
But that was seven weeks and one head coach ago and the Bengals insist they aren't the same team that got drilled that day.
New coach Dick LeBeau received plenty of ink for turning off the locker room music when he took the job Sept. 25. But now players are praising him for finding the right note in the past four games that included last Sunday's trumpet blast over Denver.
These are not September's Bengals, they say.
"It's different," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson. "There's a more professional attitude. It's closer to what a real competitive NFL competent team is. You don't see the youth as much anymore. It's not as loose. It shouldn't be as loose. Forget about the music. Just the general attitude."
It's certainly a different lineup. Left tackle Rod Jones, who allowed two of the Browns' seven sacks that day, is on the bench. So are right cornerback Artrell Hawkins and strong safety Cory Hall, who helped allow part of Browns quarterback Tim Couch's second-best passing day ever with 259 yards.
"That's the big thing. That's been the wake-up call," said quarterback Akili Smith. "People on the outside looking in, that's what they notice. But in here, too, guys know their job is on the line and that's what it's all about."
But what makes Sunday's showdown so big for the 1-6 Bengals is that a loss to the 2-6 Browns wipes out the Mile High euphoria.
"If we can't go out there and get it done, it will be a tough result to deal with," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "It means we're right back where we were. This will be a good measuring stick. We're playing a team that beat us handily in our own stadium." . . .
The most devastating aspect of the opener was how the Browns' revamped defensive line manhandled a Bengals' offensive line returning intact from last season except for right guard Mike Goff replacing Brian DeMarco.
But life in the trenches is different now. There's a belief in the locker room that LeBeau has made the Bengals a tougher mental team.
"He's changed our mindset," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who has openly questioned his team's mental state the past few seasons. "Coach LeBeau has us practice with a purpose. Before, we were more concerned about the game.
"The offense wondered who (the defense) had over here, who they had over here, and we can't run the ball on them because nobody has," Anderson said. "(LeBeau) is saying, 'We don't give a damn who's over there. We're going to run it regardless and if you stop us, you'll have to stop us 30 times.' That's the difference."
Anderson says LeBeau doesn't "sugarcoat" mistakes. Across the line, Gibson has noticed the impact of LeBeau's up-tempo practices: "When you're breathing hard at the start of practice and end the practice still breathing hard, you've got to concentrate. Even the (post-practice sprints by the entire team) has more to do with mental toughness. It has nothing to do with conditioning. Everybody runs."
So figure on running back Corey Dillon, off his record-setting day, to get more than the dozen carries he got Sept. 10. The Bengals averaged 5.8 yards per rush, but confounded people even in their own building by running just 19 times.
Offensive line coach Paul Alexander is also hoping things are different just because his guys have had nearly 50 more days together. In the first game, center Rich Braham labored enough on his swollen knee that Alexander eventually turned to Brock Gutierrez after the second game.
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"We have to play with each other," Alexander said. "Goff has to learn to play with Willie. Brock has to learn to play with Goff and (left guard Matt) O'Dwyer. We've played in enough games together that we should execute."
Smith is hoping the difference carries over into the NFL's worst passing game. What bothered the Bengals so much last time was the Browns stopped the running game without eight men in the box. They used the extra safety to help double team receiver Peter Warrick with a cornerback.
"We're going to have to adjust," Smith said. "If they crowd the line, I'm going to have to step up, be accurate, and hit the outside receivers."
So is Browns backup quarterback Doug Pederson, who looked so bad in throwing for 61 yards last week against the Steelers that coach Chris Palmer is toying with turning to sixth-round draft pick Spergon Wynn's rocket arm in certain situations.
The Browns' offense, without three other injured starters along with Couch, offered just 104 yards of offense last week for their second worst outing since the franchise's first game last year.
So the game probably comes down to which starting quarterback can get the ball to his receivers one-one if the opponents clog the line of scrimmage daring the passers to beat them.
For once, the Bengals have history and last week on their side. They've won two road games in October since 1995. One of them was last year in Cleveland.
But Gibson says even that's different. That was the Bengals' first win of last season, but they lost the next six on the way to finishing 4-12. That first win was over the winless, expansion Browns. Sunday's win was over a 4-3 Denver team a year removed from back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
"We feel a lot better after this win," Gibson said. "It wasn't a fluke or luck. It was running the ball and getting three turnovers. You can't get more old school than that. It's given us a lot of confidence."
Which is different in its own right.