McGee streak in doubt

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Tight end Tony McGee's team-high streak of 104 straight starts is in jeopardy. His sprained foot and bruised toe was downgraded today to doubtful for Sunday's game in Jacksonville, but he wasn't giving up yet.

"Wednesday morning," said McGee, who has started 112 of a possible 113 games since his rookie season of 1993. "We'll see how it feels then. There's still time."

But as McGee limped around the locker room today, it looked like he would miss his first game since his rookie year, when he sat out a 38-3 loss to Houston with a back bruise. Trainer Paul Sparling said McGee, "has a long way to go in the next five days." He's also got a long way to go for the current longest streak, which is 199 by Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews.

McGee wouldn't divulge today what he said to his teammates in the locker room immediately after the 24-7 loss to the Browns.

"What's said in the locker room stays in the locker room," McGee said.

Reportedly , it was along the lines of linebacker Takeo Spikes' thoughts.

"We have to avoid the big slump," said Spikes of a team that has gone 5-26 in September and October since 1996. "I think we can. Or else I wouldn't feel like playing."

JONES BENCHED: Bengals left tackle Rod Jones thought he might have been pulled out of the game a little too early in favor of backup John Jackson. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander made the move in the second quarter when defensive end Keith McKenzie kept getting penetration. But Jones, playing in his first game since signing a three-year, $9 million extension, figures to start next week against the Jaguars' Tony Brackens.

"If a guy is having a bad day," Alexander said, "I'm not going to keep him in there until it's too late."

POPE HAILED: The Bengals MVP of their opener? No contest. Punter Daniel Pope. He revived the Bengals in the third quarter by running 22 yards around left end for a first down on fourth-and-14 that put the ball on the Cleveland 33-yard line with 3:09 left in the period and the Bengals trailing, 17-7. Not only that, Pope kicked six times for a 40.7-yard average and his hang time was so effective that only two were returned for a total of eight yards.

Not only that, but Pope had been hatching the fake all week with special teams coach Al Roberts. And it looked like they were the only ones who knew what was going on. Certainly long snapper Brad St. Louis didn't know Pope would run it. . .more

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BLOCKED KICK:** Pope, the holder for kicker Neil Rackers, is confident the rookie won't lose his confidence after getting his 42-yard field goal attempt blocked by the right side of the Cleveland surge. In his last two games and last three field-goal tries, Rackers has missed two and had one blocked. St. Louis and Pope said the operation was good, but some observers wondered if Rackers had either kicked it too low or been too slow. No word if the club is mulling a change. Former Bengals kicker Doug Pelfrey is a possibility for Denver with Jason Elam undergoing an MRI on his back after getting hurt today.

"Neil is going to go through what I went through last year," said Pope, a rookie last year in Kansas City. "He's going to be in situations he's never been in before and I'm going to try and get him through those. I can help him because I've been there. I think he'll be fine. It's just not the physical in this league, it's the mental."

NAME DROPPERS: Bengals' No. 1 pick Peter Warrick had three catches for 80 yards in his debut, but he knows they will be talking about his three drops. One cost the Bengals a chance at a tying touchdown in the second quarter on a third-and-five that would have put the ball inside the Browns' 5 with a catch on the sideline. . .more

"I thought the DB was going to tip it and i was coming up to tackle him," Warrick said. "I just took my eyes off it. . .I was trying to make the big plays, thinking about what I was going to do next."

B>OLD KENTUCKY AT HOME: Tim Couch 1, Akili Smith 1. They have now beaten each other on their home turf. They downplayed the rivalry all week, but Couch made it clear today he remembered Smith banging his chest at the Browns' sideline after Cincinnati's win in the Dawg Pound last year: "I'm not going to lie. It drove me the whole week long. I didn't say anything, but as a competitor, you want to go out and play hard and compete against those guys. It was just a matter of going out and wanting to beat him bad. Anytime another team lines up against us, we want to beat them convincingly and we were able to do that today."

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