Lo, how many of these years left in Cincy?

11-7-02, 6:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Lorenzo Neal's teammates won't believe someone named Jon Ritchie is 2,000 votes ahead of him in the fans' vote for the AFC Pro Bowl fullback.

Or that first-place Mike Anderson of Denver leads the category with 154,827 and Neal is mired in sixth with barely 15,000, a good 35,000 votes shy of second-place Larry Centers' 26 catches for Buffalo.

That's going to be hard for Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna to fathom.

"There isn't a better true fullback than Lorenzo Neal," said Kitna before Thursday's practice. "He lives to hit people. He understands the game and never loses his individual battles. There's not a better true fullback."

Sixth-place is going to be hard for right tackle Willie Anderson to comprehend after watching the Houston linebackers begin to shy away from the 5-11, 245-pound bowling ball with thumbtacks last Sunday.

"He destroys linebackers." Anderson said. "Some of the Houston players were frustrated with their linebackers. He makes guys tap out. He hits guys the way a NFL player never gets hit. We sit in the meetings and watch the tape and laugh. Do you know how hard that is to do? Think of one of the toughest jobs you know. That's what he does every Sunday."

Neal may be in the minority in the fan vote, but his locker room has decided by acclamation that the Bengals can't lose him to free agency in the offseason. Neal and outside linebacker Takeo Spikes are viewed by their teammates as virtually untouchables.

"He's so important in our running game," Anderson said. "Look what happened to Tennessee's running game the year after he left. They were lost. I would hate to see that happen here. I hope he stays here three or four more years with Corey (Dillon)."

Kitna: "He's a leader and a winner. Those are the guys you need to fill you locker room with. Guys like Lorenzo Neal."

Dillon, the Bengals' Speaker of the House who is 306 yards from giving Neal six straight seasons

blocking for a 1,000-yard running back, banged the gavel on the debate: "Get it done. He does his job."

One of the keys to the running game? When the Bengals got far behind earlier in the season so early in games, Neal was virtually benched and had just 10 or so snaps in the blowouts. Now in close games, the Bengals have rushed for at least 127 yards in three of the last four games with Neal on the field much of the time as the lead fullback.

The Bengals have talked with Neal's agent and want to extend him, but apparently the right number isn't there yet and there are so many unanswered questions looming in the offseason.

So Neal, who turns 32 two days before this season's finale, quietly goes about the business of separating linebackers from their senses. He thinks he's got four years left to play. He'd like it to be for the Bengals if the money is right, but he won't talk contract because there are eight games left.

Eight games left for Neal to see the man he is going to drill from five yards away, then move with his eyes on his numbers, and then just launch his head, neck, shoulders and everything else into a linebacker's concrete abutment. And make the abutment buckle.

"I mean, do you know hard that is to do?" Anderson asked.

Neal shrugged as he got out of the sauna one day this week, a sure sign his end of the day is coming. It's always between 4:30 and 5 p.m., and then he puts ice on his chest and shoulders, trying to keep the career going.

"It's a wrestler's mentality," said Neal, who finished seventh in the NCAA heavyweight championships while a junior at Fresno State. "I love to hit, to make contact. No one likes to get hit. So if I keep hitting a guy and keep hitting a guy, and I keep hanging in there, eventually he's not going to want to keep getting hit."

Neal can often be heard saying, "I'm the best in the game," or "I' m going to just pound people," or maybe a good old-fashioned third person, "They don't want to mess around with Lo Neal."

Neal smiled.

"You have be that confident to do what we do," Neal said. "You're talking about running up and hitting a man from five yards away."

Dave Lapham, the Bengals' radio analyst, would be hard to figure how Kansas City's Tony Richardson has 5,000 votes on Neal.

"In the Tennessee game, he played as complete a game as a fullback can," Lapham said. "Zo plays every snap hard and at a very high level."

Neal also has 14 catches for 95 yards, which computes to 28 for the season with 190 yards, five yards from a career best.

But Anderson doesn't want to hear about a catching fullback like Centers.

"Give me a guy who is going to get your running back 1,500 to 1,600 yards a season," Anderson said. "Give me that guy. The line can get Corey five yards and get people put of the way for Zo. And then it's Zo that gets Corey the 30- and 40-yard runs. That's at that second level. That's a weapon."

Neal is going to let his teammates talk about next year. As he headed back into the sauna with ice strapped to his shoulders, he shut the door.

"I just want to concentrate on having one great year," Neal said.

He's already had a half of one.

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