Lewis skeds contention

10-20-03, 6:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

You hate to use a "TV Guide," word, but the only adjective for the AFC North is "zany." And what kind of chance do the Bengals have to win it?

If the numbers of the future schedules on Monday before the Chiefs played the Raiders are any indication, the Bengals have a real shot at staying in the race for the long haul. Pittsburgh shares the not-so-deep basement with Cincinnati at 2-4, Cleveland is a half-game ahead at 3-4, and Baltimore is the first-place team at 3-3 after the Bengals moved within a game following Sunday's 34-26 victory. The Steelers' remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .419, followed by the Bengals at .484, the Ravens at .492, and the Browns at .589.

Plus, the Bengals are the only team in the division that goes on the road to play teams with a losing record (.355) and they are the only North team that has a remaining home schedule of winning teams (.594) that features 5-1 Seattle this Sunday, and unbeaten Kansas City Nov. 16. Which is probably the way you would want it if you had a choice where to play your last 10 games.

The numbers show that Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna had it right after Sunday's victory over the Ravens when he said the Bengals face a stretch of winnable games and termed the next month "critical." Sandwiched around the Seahawks and Chiefs are the 1-5 Cardinals on the road and the 2-4 Texans at home before going to 1-5 San Diego to start a three-game road trip.

Now what head coach Marvin Lewis wants is a streak, and the Bengals haven't done it often. The last time they won three straight was Nov. 28-Dec. 12, 1999. The last time they won four straight was Sept. 17-Oct. 8, 1989. They've never won back-to-back games at Paul Brown Stadium on consecutive Sundays in five tries.

"(Contenders) are made up of pros that continue to grow (and) see that and feel that and they keep winning and you win one at a time," Lewis said. "Then you look up and

put four or five together, and then you get to that point where you're at a 5-4 clip, 6-3, or 6-4, or whatever it is that's going to do it. And you think, 'Look, we've got seven weeks left, let's do this. If we win the majority of your games, we're going to have an opportunity to be where we need to be.' I think that's what the good teams understand. The teams that perennially make the playoffs understand that."

That's one of the reasons Lewis tried to stock his roster with veterans who have been through playoff runs. That's one of the reasons he signed backup veteran quarterback Shane Matthews.

"In my 11 years, this whole team is as close as any team I've been on. I don't know what that reason is, but Marvin has ways to motivate these guys and bring everybody close together," Matthews said. "This division is up for grabs. It's really bizarre. The next three, four, five weeks are very critical. We have a lot of teams that we should beat. Hopefully we can just go out and play like we did yesterday and we'll be fine.

"The old cliché. One game at a time. You can't look down the road," Matthews said. "If we don't win that game (against Seattle), we take a step backwards. We have them in a good spot. They're coming in at 5-1, they have to travel across the country, so it's a good spot for us. Hopefully we go out and play well."

The road has been unkind to the Bengals, the worst visiting team in the NFL the past 10 seasons. But they have one road victory already this season and their remaining hosts are 11-19 combined. Compare that to the Browns and their away foes' visiting percentage of .719. The finish the season at PBS Dec. 30, but before that they go to New England, Kansas City, Seattle and Denver. The Steelers' road foes are .500 and the Ravens' are .520.

The Bengals' remaining home foes include the Browns and 49ers in December and together with Seattle, Houston, and Kansas City, they add up to 19-13. The Steelers have the easiest home slate at .333, followed by Cleveland at .417, and Baltimore at .474.

The next five games are as winnable as any stretch. The Bengals' foes in the next five weeks are a combined .500, as are the teams the Steelers play the next five weeks. The Ravens go against teams that are .633, while the Browns face a bye and four teams that are .560, including a game in Pittsburgh, which is the only North game in the next five weeks.

Lewis understands that the Bengals haven't been 5-4 since 1990, the last year they made the playoffs. When they went 22-26 from 1995-97, their best shot at the playoffs was going into the final two weeks of 1995 at 6-8. Before winning their last three games each of the 1996 and 1997 seasons, they were 5-8 and 4-9, respectively.

"You can't be complacent with one win," Lewis said. "Now we've got two, but we're not going to be complacent on Wednesday because we're going to hit them square in the face when they walk in here."

Lewis didn't give his players Monday off following the Sept. 28 victory over Cleveland. The main reason was because he knew it had been done routinely here in the past and he didn't want to do it right away. Plus, a road trip to Buffalo and a bye week loomed, and he thought now is a more appropriate time.

"They all had to come in (Monday or Tuesday), they've got to get weight-lifting done and the training room taken care of," Lewis said. "That's part of their responsibility, or we can't do this any more. All we did was give them the opportunity not to spend two hours today with us. And they need that. You need that."

And, as Matthews noted, Mondays off are common around the league. He has a friend in Denver saying the Broncos don't report to work until Wednesday after a win and Friday is "Hat Day," where they practice in jerseys, shorts, and ballcaps.

"Every coach is different, Matthews said.

Like Lewis said, there's incentive to win this week because that means there are more day offs on the way.

"They know,' Lewis said.

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