Long, but no strange trip

11-24-03, 11:55 a.m. <>

SAN DIEGO _ The Bengals caught the last plane from the coast Sunday night. Where for once, they could scoreboard watch. And they did because they could.

After all, the nation watched them during the week in "Sports Illustrated," on ESPN, and in the pages of the sedate "New York Times," to the saucy syndicated radio waves of Jim Rome.

They ought to be able to allowed themselves to sneak a look, right?.

"We shouldn't have, but we did," right tackle Willie Anderson admitted after the 34-27 victory over the Chargers. "But you couldn't help but see that big No. 41 up there."

When the Bengals took the field for the kickoff Sunday, the Qualcomm Stadium scoreboard flashed Seattle's fourth-quarter lead over Baltimore at 41-24. It looked like the Bengals would move into sole possession of first place in the AFC North without even taking a snap. Then they started playing, and they led, 14-0, and it looked liked they would have a one-game lead over the Ravens and two games over the Steelers and Browns with five games left and in the name of Norman Julius Esiason it looked like . . .

"But then we saw the No. 38 go up there for Baltimore and then all the other games were final except for that one and you're wondering, 'Why isn't that a final yet?'" Anderson said. "Then it's 41-41 and then you saw Baltimore win in OT and it was, 'Wow.'

"No, it didn't deflate us. We haven't done anything yet," Anderson said. 'We're just thinking about this three-game road trip and trying to take it one game at a time. It's a process."

If that sounds like head coach Marvin Lewis talking, it's because it is. He brought along the shovel that Anderson gave him from the Paul Brown Stadium ground crew last week to symbolize Lewis' motto of keeping their head down while shoveling coal and not being distracted. Anderson looked up at halftime Sunday and there was the shovel leaning against a Qualcomm Stadium wall.

"I thought our players did a good job keeping attention and focus during the week," Lewis said. "They really came out ready to play and that was a good thing to see after the kind of week we had."

The Bengals are only tied for first place with the Ravens after that bit of scoreboard watching, but it's still a brave, new world.

It's the first time the Bengals have been 6-5 around the Thanksgiving holidays since 1990, when they went to Pittsburgh at 6-5 on Dec. 2 and beat the Steelers, 16-12, for their last road victory over a winning team. It catapulted them to 7-5 and paved the way to the AFC Central title.

Yes, they go to Pittsburgh this week, and much the same could happen. But they haven't won there since 1999. Then the next week they go to Baltimore , where they haven't won since 1996. Two weeks later they have to go on the road to play that winning team in its formidable dome in St. Louis.

But like wide receiver Chad Johnson keeps saying. These aren't the old Bengals.

"I don't think they believe us. I don't think they know," said Johnson after his career 10-catch day. "Don't they know I'm uncoverable? And this proves to people we can win both at home and on the road. I keep telling them that."

Johnson was a star Sunday before he even touched the ball as one of the features on ESPN's pre-game show.

"I didn't see it. I was on the bus," Johnson said of his trip from the hotel to the stadium. "How was it?"

Complimentary. They said he's like that new breed of receiver that is cocky and outspoken, but he's also got that old school work ethic and desire to succeed. They liked him. Which is more than they said about Keyshawn Johnson, among others.

Johnson flashed it all Sunday on his three touchdowns that tied a club record last set by Carl Pickens nearly seven years ago. After the second one, he flipped the ball into the stands to his brother, which will give him yet another fine from the NFL, but a happy sibling. On his third touchdown, rookie cornerback Sammy Davis is still picking up his No. 22 after Johnson froze him with an outside juke on a 12-yard touchdown catch.

"That was my P. Dub imitation," said Johnson of fellow receiver Peter Warrick.

If Lewis is the voice of this team, Johnson is becoming the face of it. Bold, confident, and going where they haven't been before. But at the same time and somehow, still humble. He's got eight touchdown catches this season after having six total in his previous two seasons, and still leads the AFC in receiving yards.

"I'm not that good, I'm just a well-coached player," Johnson said.

Anderson kept saying Sunday, "We're not in any kind of a position to overlook anybody or feel good." The word had been passed during the week. It had been felt things got little lax three weeks ago in that loss to Arizona three weeks ago. Maybe a little too much sightseeing and shopping. Maybe not enough down time. So the business trip angle was emphasized again.

Presto. Lewis wrote on the chalkboard, "Start Fast," and they got 14 points in the first 11 minutes.

"The difference from today and in Arizona," said running back Brandon Bennett, 'is that everyone came to play. It wasn't sluggish out there.'

But Anderson, the dean with 121 Bengals' games, could allow himself to savor a long, short road trip back home. Since he came into the league in 1996, the Bengals had never won any of the nine games in the Rockies or west. He had never won any of the four games in California.

"It's great," Anderson said. "I know that it won't be a very long trip like all the others."

And since Lewis has decreed the most senior players get the right to travel up front, Anderson not only went home in first place, but in first class.

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