Posted: 2:45 a.m.
Cris Collinsworth has the Emmys, but T.J. Houshmandzadeh is the guy he likes in prime time. On Sunday, with his third catch of the day against the Ravens, Houshmandzadeh pre-empts Collinsworth as the third most prolific Bengals receiver of all time with his 418th catch.
"T.J. is like Danny Ross," says Collinsworth of the great Bengals tight end. "He's a great clutch performer. Chad (Johnson) gets all the headlines and he's the best route runner in the league. But when it's third-and-nine and you absolutely have to have it, I know where Carson (Palmer) is going to throw it."
The big question heading into Baltimore is if anyone knows where it's going, since Palmer, Johnson and Houshmandzadeh have been on the field together just three times since Dec. 30. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski isn't predicting any records, but Johnson and Houshmandzadeh have been here as long he has in a run in its eighth season and that has to count for something.
BENGALS FIVE ALL-TIME RECEIVERS
Chad Johnson: 559 receptions, 2001-08 Carl Pickens: 530, 1992-99 Cris Collinsworth: 417, 1981-88 Isaac Curtis: 416, 1973-84 T.J Houshmandzadeh: 415, 2001-08
Houshmandzadeh, who has been practicing for nine days since missing virtually all of training camp with a tight hamstring that kept him out of the preseason games, says it's been pretty seamless.
"Since I've been back, there was only one ball I was like, 'Wow, that's way off,' " he said. "That was Monday. Every ball has been right there as I come out of my break and if it's not there, I catch it anyway."
That sums up what makes Houshmandzadeh one of the top receivers in the league even though he's not all that fast, not all that quick, and not all that big. But he thinks he's all three.
"He's smart, tough, and he can catch," Bratkowski said. "And he's confident.
"I like what I've seen. How focused Chad and T.J. are, knowing, 'I can't wander at all. I have to give my attention to everything I'm doing,' and that's what I saw out there today. That made me feel better from what I've seen the last two days."
Palmer agreed with Bratkowski that the meetings the receivers attended in training camp are going to be almost as good as practices.
"T.J. and Chad haven't been on the field every single day, but they've been in every meeting and seen clips of us doing things right, doing things wrong, and making corrections," Palmer said. "And watching past games. So we're going to go in with a full game plan, just like we would if they had practiced every single day during training camp. They're both veteran guys.
"They're veteran guys within our offense that have been here since Brat has been here, I think. So there shouldn't be a fall-off that way because they've been around. It's not like they've been in the training room every day and not been in meetings. They know the offense inside and out, and we'll execute fine, and we'll be ready."
Sunday is going to be Houshmandzadeh's kind of game, a game in which the Bengals passing game is going to be relying on conditioned responses.
"He's like the Patriots' version of Wes Welker; he's a good man-beater, option routes, read routes," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said Wednesday in Baltimore. "Chad's just a vertical threat (and) can run other parts of the routes, but Houshmandzadeh is more of the route-runner."
Collinsworth, who caught his 417 balls in 107 Bengals games before beginning his successful announcing career in 1989, has long been an admirer and took note earlier this week when Houshmandzadeh was named a captain as he heads into his 91st NFL game.
"He's a classy pro," Collinsworth says. "I like the way he carries himself with dignity. He just goes about his business, and he's a tough guy. If I caught 112 passes in a season, I don't know if I could play another one. I'm an admirer of his."
Houshmandzadeh knew about Collinsworth before he arrived here in the seventh round in 2001 because "everybody sees him on TV," but before he got here he was unfamiliar with Isaac Curtis, the man right behind Collinsworth with 416. After watching tape, Houshmandzadeh says Collinsworth reminds him of former Bengals receiver Danny Farmer. He's seen no tape on Curtis, but has heard the legend.
"I hear how fast he was," Houshmandzadeh said. "Times have changed. We do football all year round. We just have so much time to work on our game than they did. I don't know what (the records) mean. I've just been given an opportunity and I know I can make a play. And I've been given opportunities.
"You put good people around you, and good things tend to happen with a good O-line and good quarterback."
Especially against Baltimore.
Both Houshmandzadeh and Johnson have chewed up the Ravens. In the last six games against them the Bengals have won five and Johnson has caught at least 88 yards in four of them.
Houshmandzadeh's two best games (171 and 147) have come against Baltimore, as well as his first 100-yard game, and his 40-yarder was the Bengals' only touchdown in a 13-7 victory in 2006.
"I can't respect a man with a ponytail," Scot said with a laugh. "He's a tough player. He's a tough guy. You can respect a receiver that's willing to get in there and mix it up. It's always a battle. We know each other so well. We've been doing this for a long time now, and I'm just excited to get back out there. But we know if we're able to get the upper hand, we're able to limit big plays, we're able to be physical with them. That's what he wants to try to establish."
Even though the Bengals trio hasn't been together, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis sees them intact in his mind.
"You have probably one of the best receivers in the game in Chad Johnson. Houshmandzadeh is probably one of the best third-down [receivers] and Carson Palmer is probably one of the best quarterbacks that you can see throw the ball," Lewis said. "That alone. If you don't study that, then they have a field day doing what they do. You don't want them to play 'skelly' on you all day, where Carson is getting ahead and Chad is just running free and Houshy's just having fun. That's why you have to study all things like that. You have to really understand what they do, and once you get a beat on what they do, then football becomes football."
Throw in the fact that the Ravens' No. 3 and 4 cornerbacks, Fabian Washington and Derrick Martin, aren't playing behind the 32-year-old Samari Rolle and 31-year-old Chris McAlister on Sunday, and Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed is out.
Houshmandzadeh sketched out why he though the Bengals have been able to pass on Baltimore.
"They play you man, they try to man you up," Houshmandzadeh said. "I think that's a strength of me and a strength of Chad to be able to beat man coverage and that's what we do. They've got tremendous athletes. If you can protect Carson, he's going to put the ball there and we should win a lot of our one-on-one battles."
It's why by the end of Sunday, only Johnson and Carl Pickens will have more Bengals catches than Houshmandzadeh.
"It's a different game; more interesting," Collinsworth says, "But different. Guys just keep racing by me (on the all-time list). Pretty soon a rookie is going to come out here and make 417 catches in one season."