BY GEOFF HOBSON
TAMPA, Fla. _ Had enough of the Ravens?
Get ready to see plenty more of them with the way NFL realignment is shaking down for 2002. Baltimore now looks to be the leading candidate to join Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the new AFC North when the NFL expands to 32 teams.
"It keeps going back between Baltimore and Houston and the southern teams are trying to figure out what to do with Houston," said Dan Rooney, the Steelers' owner who is pushing to keep alive Pittsburgh's six-decade rivalry with Baltimore.
Expansion Houston looks to be headed to the AFC South with Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis.
"We can't convince enough people to bring in Indianapolis, so we're prepared for Baltimore," said Bengals President Mike Brown Friday. "It's not decided yet and there's still discussion. But if it was voted on today, we'd probably be with Baltimore."
The owners gave themselves a June 1, 2001 deadline to approve a realignment plan, but don't expect it to be voted on at the annual spring meeting March 25-29 in Palm Desert, Calif. It will probably be done later at a special meeting.
With the hiring of Steelers receivers coach Bob Bratkowski earlier this week as offensive coordinator, the Bengals might be going to more of a spread look just in time. In their last three games against the Ravens, the Bengals have rushed for 141 yards on 67 carries, barely two yards per carry.
"Bob has coached against Baltimore, so he's seen them," Brown said. "Nobody has been able to run on them. If this was the first year, they would be the class of the division. But in this business, 2002 is a long way away. Who knows by then?"
BRIAN's SONG: Ravens head coach Brian Billick hasn't made many friends at the Super Bowl this week. It's to the point where Billick joked at his Friday news conference, "if you want to embrace an arrogant, egotistical head coach there, too," when asked if the Ravens were a team that could be embraced.
Which is nothing new in Cincinnati. CBS Radio analyst and former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason insisted Friday Billick's actions in the Ravens' 37-0 rout of the Bengals Sept. 24 in Baltimore directly led to coach Bruce Coslet's resignation the next morning.
"That was the straw that broke the back, no question," Esiason said, "No, it wasn't a nice thing he did. But it's not about being nice in this league. That's the bottom line."
Coslet was enraged when Billick challenged a call just before the two-minute warning with a 34-0 lead. Then when Baltimore lost the challenge and a touchdown, Billick opted to kick a short field goal and Coslet opted not to shake his hand.
"Bruce was really dismayed by running up the score," Esiason said. "Brian Billick will tell you there were players cheap shotting and talking trash on the field, so he felt like he had to run it up. But you know what? In this league, it's not what you've done, but what you've done for me."
KJ BACKS COLLINS: Once upon a time, the Penn State teammates were traded for each other. Sort of.
In 1995, the Bengals traded the fifth pick and their second-round pick to Carolina for the NFL Draft's first pick.The Bengals took running back Ki-Jana Carter. The Panthers took quarterback Kerry Collins.
Alcohol problems drove Collins out of Carolina and New Orleans, but he's riding high again after leading the Giants into Sunday's Super Bowl by throwing for a championship game record 381 yards against the Vikings.
Collins has used the week as a forum for baring his soul about his personal problems in his previous NFL life. Carter, now a former Bengal living in Plantation, Fla., has been surprised to hear about the racist allegations surrounding his college teammate, which Collins has attributed to his alcohol abuse.
"We were good friends. I never had a problem with him," Carter said. "I think people just took him the wrong way. He's a good person, true to his friends.
"I was surprised to hear about his (battles with alcohol)," Carter said. "A guy who has a problem, that makes me think he's always got a drink in his hand and he didn't. He just probably partied a lot. I never sensed that about him. It's good to see him back on top. Right place, right time. That's what it takes."
Which is what Carter is hoping happens to him. He had just one 100-yard game in an injury-plagued career with the Bengals that ended last June after he dislocated his kneecap again during an individual workout.
He tried out with Green Bay and Philadelphia last season, but he didn't stick. Carter said his workouts were too close to his medical clearance and that a solid 18 months of rehab should give him a better shot this season.
He said he'll keep fighting the fight.
"I've had some inquiries, but I'd like to keep the teams quiet and see what happens," Carter said.
TAGS RESPONDS: At NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's annual state of the NFL news conference here Friday at the Super Bowl, the Ray Lewis/player conduct question kept bubbling.
Tagliabue bristled at the last question, which referred to newscaster Paul Harvey's report that 21 percent of NFL players have a criminal record.
"I don't know what Paul Harvey said, but I do know that most statements that have been made about criminal records in the NFL have been nonsensical and stupid, including so-called statistical statements," Tagliabue said.
"We track 2,500 players that go to training camp every year, plus every other player who has been with the league in the preceding 18 months," Tagliabue said. "We track 3,000 to 4,000 players every year in terms of criminal misconduct. And this year, tracking almost 4,000 players, we have had 26 investigations, not offenses, investigations, and we've had 11 convictions out of 4,000 people that we're tracking. And most of those convictions, putting aside the Rae Carruth case, were minor offenses. If the rest of society can do as well as we do in the NFL, America's crime problem would be well addressed."