Jag-ged edge

11-7-01, 2:35 p.m.

Updated: 11-7-01, 7:00 p.m.

Updated: 11-8-01, 7:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Now you know the apocalypse is upon us. On Wednesday, Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith actually said this.

"We're not very good right now," Smith said during a conference call with the Cincinnati media. "Cincinnati is a much better football team than we are and that's why they are where they are in the division and that's why we're dead last."

Smith read a stat Wednesday that surprised him a bit. The 2-5 Jaguars, who have the fourth best record in the NFL since 1997, have lost 15 of their last 24 games. In fact, the Jaguars, who lost four home games in the four seasons from '96-'99, are 6-6 in their last dozen games at ALLTEL Stadium and are 2-2 this season.

The Jags, who had a five-game losing streak in their first year of existence, are in another five-game spin after enduring one in last season's 7-9 season.

But the 4-3 Bengals simply aren't buying it. The last time they played the Jags when Jacksonville had a losing record was 1996, when none of their defensive starters were with the team. While the Jags have gone 45-26 since 1997, the Bengals have gone 22-49.

Plus, the Bengals haven't won in ALLTEL since the Jags' first season in 1995 and Smith, wide receiver Keenan McCardell and quarterback Mark Brunell have lit it up on this generation of Bengals.

Smith came into this season with 71 catches against the Bengals in 12 career games, his best against anyone. Brunell has 16 touchdown passes and McCardell has caught six of them, bests for both men around the NFL.

And running back Fred Taylor, who returned to practice Wednesday for the first time in five weeks after partially tearing his groin from the bone and is questionable, has three 100-yard games against the Bengals.

"I don't think it's real," said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "I don't think they believe that. They

haven't been winning, but they've been in situations in the last three weeks that they could have won games in the fourth quarter.

"They don't believe we're better than them," Hawkins said. "Especially with Mark, Jimmy and Keenan. I don't believe it."

Smith says it's been tough living with ultra intense head coach Tom Coughlin. He says "it's almost scary," the way the losing has impacted Coughlin.

"It's not fun at all," said Smith, who is still having another Pro Bowl year with 50 catches. "The last couple of years, (the Bengals) have been in that situation. We know how it feels and now that they're winning, they know how we felt the couple of years we were winning."

Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons isn't buying it, either.

"Even if they thought that, they wouldn't say that, Simmons said. "If we were sitting here 0-15 about to play a 15-0 team, I wouldn't come out and say, 'We're terrible.' They're still a dangerous team. It's just a matter of them getting some parts together and turning it around."

Of all things, Brunell (probable with quad bruise) didn't practice Wednesday, but Taylor did. Pro Bowl left tackle Tony Boselli is out for the year, defensive end Tony Brackens missed four games with a knee injury, 2000 first-round pick R.J. Soward is suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and this year's first- round pick, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, can't break into the starting lineup.

Taylor, who hasn't played in the five-game losing streak, didn't sound all that upbeat Wednesday. The Jaguars have the sixth most rushing yards in the NFL since 1998, but without Taylor they are 26th in rushing and have a league-low time of possession of 26:10.

"It doesn't feel as good as it should," said Taylor, who says he won't come back too early. "It feels OK. If it's OK, I'll play. If it's not, I'll go back on the table."

Smith said the rumors swirling around Coughlin (Notre Dame, Syracuse, fired) haven't been a distraction. But clearly the losing has been hard on the only coach the Jaguars have ever had.

"He takes it harder than anyone in this whole franchise," Smith said. "He takes losing very hard. It's almost scary. He works so hard. He basically lives up here at this stadium. He never goes home and for us to go out and play the way we've played the last couple of weeks and just hand our opponents a victory, it's tough on the guy." **

JAG THURSDAY UPDATE:** Jags quarterback Mark Brunell didn't practice again Thursday with a bruised quad, but coach Tom Coughlin expects him to play Sunday. Coughlin said running back Fred Taylor (groin) worked "limited," in Thursday's practice, but also said, "something very good has to happen for him to play Sunday afternoon." Still, Coughlin wouldn't rule Taylor out of his sixth straight game.

THIS AND THAT: Bengals kicker Neil Rackers says he works best when he's got competition. Now that Jaret Holmes is on the practice squad, the club is charting the two at practice. Bengals coach Dick LeBeau isn't tipping his hand when he says both have kicked well. It's doubtful Holmes would be active this soon.

On bye Sunday, Rackers said he watched Steelers kicker Kris Brown miss three of four field-goal tries, including what would have been the tying kick with eight seconds left against Baltimore.

"I couldn't relax. I was thinking of his wife watching back at home," Rackers said.

"When that last one flew off to the right, I said 'I understand. I understand.'" . . .

DT Tony Williams (foot) practiced for the first time since spraining the foot in the first quarter Oct. 7 in Pittsburgh. He's listed as questionable and they think he'll be able to go, but want to see how he works Wednesday and Thursday. . .

Rookie WR Chad Johnson was able to catch some balls and run around a bit Wednesday for the first time since breaking his clavicle three weeks ago. Trainer Paul Sparling said Johnson has a shot at playing next week, but not this one.

"The reason we didn't want to risk him running pass patterns is because we didn't want him slipping and falling and breaking it again," Sparling said. "If anything, we'll keep him out a week too late rather than have him come back a week too soon." . . .

With running back Corey Dillon just off the FOX pre-game circuit, "Sports Illustrated," came to town Wednesday to interview defensive captain Takeo Spikes for a feature. SI NFL writer Michael Silver, looking at Spikes' bittersweet season of his father's death and his emergence as an elite linebacker, said the story will probably run in the issue after this upcoming one.

"It's all because we're winning," said Spikes, who has felt that he and some of his teammates have been overlooked by the national media because of the Bengals' record. "If we keep coming, there'll be more for me and everyone else."

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