Kitna meets Blake in mirror

10-31-31, 3:40 p.m. Updated:
10-31-03, 11:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If Sunday's Bengals' game in Arizona is a mirror game of franchises and teams, then why not the quarterbacks?

Cincinnati's Jon Kitna and Arizona's Jeff Blake are thirtysomething quarterbacks still seeking niches in the NFL despite some solid runs here and there. Blake, a month shy of 33, is working on his third team since he started 66 games for the Bengals in the mid-to-late '90s, but the Cardinals bestowed their trust in the man who has thrown the 10th most touchdown passes of active quarterbacks with a two-year contract.

Kitna, 31, is in the middle of a stretch Blake never had in Cincinnati with eight touchdown passes and one interception in the Bengals' best four-game run since Boomer Esiason pitched nine and two in 1997.

Of course, what does the future hold for them? Will the Cardinals draft a guy if the 2-5 season gets any worse? And what of Kitna and the man sitting behind him, Carson Palmer, the 2003 draft's overall No. 1 pick?

It's hard to believe the Bengals can keep paying both of them at current levels into next season. Even if Kitna has out-rated all his opposing quarterbacks in this near Pro Bowl season of a career-high 88.2 passer rating.

But who cares? Why think about it? The fans, the players, and Kitna are loving a big-play offense that is on pace to give the Bengals most passing yards since 1989, the high-water mark of Boomer's and Sam Wyche's swashbuckling offenses.

Radio talk masters like Lance McAllister are extolling Kitna's Pro Bowl-like numbers over the last 16 games. Fans are e-mailing apologies to a guy who is in the top 10 in NFL passing this season. His coaches are riding his reliability (a plus 100 rating on third down) and his teammates are feeding off his clutch play that has produced a NFL-high five touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

"You're realistic about things and understand at some point the plan is he's going to take over," Kitna said of Palmer this week. "But you never know when that point is. Since Marvin (Lewis) got here and before they drafted Carson and after they drafted Carson, this is the best opportunity I've had in my career to be the best quarterback I can be. It's a lot of fun. God has a sense of humor."

Next year is Kitna's last year under contract and he's scheduled to count $4.3 million against the salary cap. It's a high enough number that when

crunched against Palmer's No. 1-in-the-draft mega deal, it makes it hard for the Bengals to fit both in 2004.

But that doesn't seem like that was the plan, was it? Wasn't the idea that Kitna would play well here and there, but in the end, his penchant for making the killing mistake would take the Bengals out of the playoff hunt and here would be Palmer at least in time for Thanksgiving dinner?

Then, wouldn't they approach Kitna and ask him to re-do his contract and extend him at a reduced rate but good money for a nice, solid backup quarterback?

They still may have to do that after the season. But if you're Jon Kitna and you've just led the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, don't you think you can start some place else with a pretty big contract?

"Would I consider it? Yeah," said Kitna of sticking around at a reduced rate. "I'm not a guy who is looking to get all he can get in free agency. But it's so far in the future right now. There are just a lot of things that have to happen. There's a lot of football left. We have nine games left. I'm just having fun playing these games and not really thinking about where I'll be or what I'll be doing next year.

"I'm enjoying this too much. I'm enjoying watching the fans so happy and excited and I'm enjoying seeing this locker room be perked up and lively and expecting to win week in and week out. That's fun. That's fun."

As Kitna says, "God has a sense of humor.

"The Bible says God chooses the foolish things to shame the wise and the weak things to shame the strong. Lowly things and the despised things," Kitna said. "I think about the fact he's chosen me, the most unlikely guy to make it in the NFL and play quarterback for eight years. Shameful to the wise to make it this long. And I think he's choosing this team."

Mike Moye, Kitna's Atlanta-based agent, is also thinking like his client. This year is this year and then we'll go from there.

"Jon is under contract for another year and that's where it stands. They have his rights and I'm sure if you asked the team, they would tell you they are putting all the energies into the season and that's an off-season question," Moye said. "It would certainly look like (the Bengals) are going to be like some other teams and be in the position of having to decide what to do with two good quarterbacks."

With head coach Marvin Lewis not even commenting on tight end Reggie Kelly's injury status for the next few games, you can imagine how much he won't say about his future quarterback situation.

Nothing.

So who knows? One thing Kitna does know is that he likes the Cincinnati area.

"I have no interest in moving my family year after year," Kitna said. "I love the school my son is in. My cousin is going to be a junior next year and I'd love to keep him in the same high school. You just never know what is going to happen in this league. Things change every year."

Who knows? Maybe the Bengals try and bite the bullet in '04. But there is too much fun playing now to think about next year.

"My wife and I always go into every season like this is going to be our last year playing football," Kitna said. "So I've just decided I'm going to enjoy it. Enjoy the winning and the locker room and the playing. Isn't it great to be with these fans and this team trying to go to the playoffs for the first time in whenever?"

**

MATCHUPS:This may be as close as the Bengals ever come to playing on the moon when they set up shop in the desert with no atmosphere in front of about 25,000 fans. After getting his team to play well in Oakland's "Black Hole," it's as much of a challenge forBengals head coach Marvin Lewis* t get his team ready against the Cardinals' "Big Hole," in empty *Sun Devil Stadium.* Bngals OLBs Brian Simmons and Adrian Ross used to practice against Cardinals QB Jeff Blake and they'll need to be up on more than the long ball. "He's having a pretty good year," said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "And knowing Jeff, he'll tell you about it."

Cincinnati tries to be one of the few teams to stop one of the NFL's hottest rookies when Bengals CBs Tory James and Artrell Hawkins line up against Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin. The key to the running game and Blake's effectiveness is how Bengals DTs John Thornton and Tony Williams handle massive Cardinals RG Leonard Davis. **

Bengals LT Levi Jonescomes home to try and take awayCardinals RE Calvin Pace's* mmentum while *Bengals WR Chad Johnson* tris to get down the middle of the field against Crdinals Ss Adrian Wilson and Dexter Jackson. Benals K Shayne Graham has been near perfect and stand-in Cardinals K Tim Duncan hasn't, but the key may not be field goals but kickoffs.

**

LEWIS VS. SUN DEVIL:It's kind of a homecoming for him. His Idaho State housemate is the Arizona State head coach and daughter Whitney is a freshman on the Tempe campus. The Bengals fear that visiting teams in the last two games have fallen victim to the laid-back, scrimmage-like atmosphere in allowing the Cardinals to waltz down the field, score on the first drive, and then hang around all game. The Bengals have yet to score first in a game this season and you know Lewis has emphasized that this week.

BLAKE VS. SIMMONS, ROSS:** His top four receivers came into the season with 24 NFL catches, 23 by backup Kevin Kasper. If it sounds like the Bengals in 2000, it is, because Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson are the first two rookie receivers to start a season together since Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans.

Blake said this week that the offense has been slowed by a different combination of receivers every week, but he says Boldin is the real deal. Still, Blake is overthrowing his signature long ball, probably because his inexperienced receivers are having trouble getting separation. But, a month shy of 33, he is still very athletic, he ran for some key first downs last week in the win over the Niners, and Ross and Simmons have to be wary of Blake's familiar pump fake that gets defenders in the air before he goes sliding past.

After Blake threw nine interceptions in the first six games (three interceptions in the first quarter) and the Cards racked up a league-low minus-14 turnover differential, he vowed during the bye week to cut down on the picks and he threw none last week in the overtime victory over the Niners.

In fact, Blake blurted out after throwing three picks in the loss to go to 1-5, "In all my years playing, even on my bad teams in Cincinnati, we didn't turn the ball over like this."

So the Cards decided during the bye week to pound the running game and play defense, and running back Marcel Shipp pummeled the Niners on 35 smashes for 165 yards.

"I don't know what I was expecting," Hawkins said of Blake. "I guess an old guy with a cane and in a wheelchair, but on film he looks as good as he ever has. He's still quick, and he can beat you with his legs, and from what I can see, he still throws a great long ball."

JAMES, HAWKINS VS. BOLDIN: The 6-1, 218-pound Boldin is everyone's NFL Rookie of the Year. He leads all receivers with 17 third-down catches and it will be interesting to see when he moves into the slot if the Bengals move James with him or keep Hawkins there.

Who ever is on Boldin, they have to tackle him after the catch. He is doing most of his damage with Blake hitting him in front of the secondary and then making people miss. His 71-yard touchdown play in the opener came on a six-yard route and run. **

THORNTON, WILLIAMS VS. DAVIS:Davis has been hurting with a broken hand in the preseason and then a sprained ankle suffered in the opener that took him out of two September games. But the Cards' idea is now to run the ball and they've got to do it behind the 384-pound man nicknamed "Big." The Bengals, 23rd against the rush, need to cut him down to size so Arizona has to resort to its inexperienced passing game.

JONES VS. PACE:Jones, the Eloy, Ariz., and ASU product, goes against a young speed guy taken in the first round this year out of Wake Forest whose knock is he has yet to develop a counter move. Pace got his first NFL sack last week, but Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia almost got back to the line of scrimmage with it.

JOHNSON VS. WILSON, JACKSON:Wilson leads the NFL in personal fouls and he got ejected last week for kicking tight end Jed Weaver in the throat. Hey, Johnson only faked a throat slash last week in his end zone celebration. Some think the Cards overpaid Jackson for his Super Bowl heroics. They aren't known for their speed, but they'll have to get to the middle on Johnson. They've allowed three touchdown passes of at least 51 yards.

GRAHAM VS. DUNCAN:** Graham has been dead solid perfect on 11-for-12, the best opening stretch by a Bengal kicker since Jim Breech knocked through 14 of his first 15 in 1991. Duncan, getting his first NFL action in place of the ailing Bill Gramatica (back) won last week's game from 39 yards in OT. He also had career-long 53-yarder. He also had misses from 41, 37 and 50.

Graham has been spotty on kickoffs and they will have to beware of Josh Scobey. His kick return team is gaining more and more confidence each week, since he returned a kick for a 100-yard touchdown against the Rams Sept. 28. The next week he rolled up 122 yards against the Cowboys and nicked the Ravens for 117 a week later with a pretty basic north-and-south philosophy.

**

NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game in Arizona, including nine, the number of running backs who have had 100-yard games in the 20 seasons Jim Anderson has been the Bengals running backs coach. It started with Larry Kinnebrew's 119 yards on Nov. 18, 1984 at home against Seattle, and the list grew last week with Rudi Johnson's 101 yards, naturally, at home against Seattle.

Also on the list are Corey Dillon (club-record 27 games), Ki-Jana Carter, Harold Green, James Brooks, Ickey Woods, Stanley Wilson and replacement player Marc Logan.

106.9 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's passer rating in the victory against his former Seattle team last week.

104.6 _ Cardinals quarterback Jeff Blake's passer rating in two victories last year against his former Cincinnati team.

3-5 _ Blake's record as a starter against Marvin Lewis' linebackers in Pittsburgh and defenses in Baltimore.

13-9 _ Blake's touchdown-to-interception ratio in those eight starts.

12 _ Interceptions thrown by Arizona this season.

12 _ Interceptions thrown by Kitna in his last 12 starts.

76 _ Injured Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith's career 100-yard games.

30 _ Career 100-yard games for Bengals running backs Corey Dillon (27) and Rudi Johnson (1) and Cardinals running back Marcel Shipp.

216 _ Dillon's yards in Bengals' victory over Arizona in 2000.

203 – Dillon's yards this season.

.299 _ Bengals' winning percentage since 1993.

.371 _ Cardinals' winning percentage since 1993.

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