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Mania hitting full force

12-1-03 6:30 a.m.


PITTSBURGH _ Marivn Mania has reached new heights. Bengaldom is chic again, just like it was back in the '80s to be Born in the USA with Bruce, Reagan and Madonna. The Bengals, who haven't been to the playoffs since 1990, are a win away in Baltimore next week from getting a magic number.

Who knew?


"It's getting crazy," said quarterback Jon Kitna of his forays into community. "Ohio is a little different. It's a football state. I was 8-2 in Seattle, but more people recognized me here when we were going 2-14. When grandmas start to notice you, this is a different place. It's getting crazy."

How crazy? The Bengals' hotel on this trip, the William Penn, was besieged by the biggest crush of Bengals' fans since the playoff years. Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, posing for pictures and mulling a working weekend in Baltimore this week, checked in.

Word was that Ickey Woods, hero of the last Super Bowl run, was in the nosebleed seats at Heinz Field and commenced to do "The Ickey Shuffle," when Kitna hit tight end Matt Schobel with the winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds left.

The players are beginning to sense it now. Off the field is as different as on the field for the guys who have labored for years on struggling teams.

"Every week it's the biggest win," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Every week it just keeps getting bigger. Next week we go to Baltimore, another tough division game, it will probably take us 60 minutes to win that one, too. Hat's off to the coaching staff, and all the fans—everybody that's supporting us right now. It's great, it's a great feeling.

Kitna, who hasn't thrown an interception in 114 passes – since the last pass in the first half against Houston Nov. 9 _ is riding the wave. He's already got 22 touchdown passes, one short of his career high and seven away from Ken Anderson's club record. But he'll be the first to tell you he's had plenty of help.

"The whole day, we kept coming back, we made enough plays," Schobel said. "And even on that drive there were four big plays: the kickoff return, the run, [Peter Warrick] made a big catch, and it was just my turn to make a play, and I did it."


STUNTS AND SCREENS:** Wide receiver Chad Johnson said he dialed up CBS talkmaster Deion Sanders after the game and urged him to come out of retirement because he might be the only around who can cover him. Johnson went over 1,000 yards for the second straight year with 117 yards on six catches, and he's now 168 yards shy of Eddie Brown's club record of 1,273. Johnson, who worked out with Sanders and other NFL receivers during a weekend in Dallas this past summer, has 1,105 yards on the season, 61 yards from last yea's total. . .

Left tackle Levi Jones, who gave up two of the Steelers' four sacks back in September, came up big as part of a unit that held them to one sack Sunday. And that came on a safety blitz on which Kitna took the blame.

But Jones was still upset with himself for his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the Bengals a possible clinching touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

"He cheap-shotted me and I retaliated. Smart move by him and a dumb move by me," Jones said. "I feel bad about it. I'm glad we won, but I feel badly about putting that much pressure on my teammates."

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