10-11-01, 8:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
This week's buzz at Paul Brown Stadium tells you this is a trend game.
If the 2-2 Bengals can beat the 3-1 Cleveland Browns Sunday and go over .500 for the first time in October since 1990, it means they're going to be sniffing around the playoffs enough to keep people interested until at least Thanksgiving and maybe beyond.
A loss, and it is just another 2-3 start with heavyweights like Tampa Bay, the Jets and the Titans flexing their muscles in November and December.
But the Bengals have a trend on their side. He's their version of Mr. October, which means Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon's break-out game of 2001 looms like a harvest moon.
" It's soon to come," Dillon said. "I don't know when, but it's got to come. It's a matter of time."
What about Sunday? Is it in the stars that he has the big game against a Browns' team that decided not to pursue him this past free-agency season?
"I have nothing against the Browns," Dillon said. "I have no conflict with them. My mind-set and their mind-set, I guess, weren't the same. I think they've got a great organization and great coaches. This is the place I wanted to be."
It's not the stars or the tides that say Dillon, who has gained just 167 yards in his last three games, is close to going off. It is the numbers.
Dillon, who was born on Oct. 24 27 years ago and set the NFL rushing record on Oct. 22 a year ago, doesn't start consuming yardage until this month. Another trend? Two of his biggest games have come in October against the Browns.
In fact, he uses October as a springboard into some pretty hot Novembers and Decembers.
Dilllon averages 54 yards in August/September games, 79 in October games, 85 in November, and 100 in December. He has five 100-yard games each in October and December, six in November, and just three in August/September.
And no one can really tell you why. Dillon's explanation of, "I like to start my birth month out in the right way," is as good as any.
Dillon is on pace to have the fewest yards of his career at 1,084 despite his first ever Opening Day 100-yard game with 104 against the Patriots. But in his four full seasons as a starter, his 271 yards this year is his second best four-game start and better than last season when he finished with a franchise record 1,435 yards.
With the Bengals' passing game mired 28th in the NFL, it looks like defenses are again hounding Dillon
with eight men in a box.
"To win, you have to have some balance," said running backs coach Jim Anderson. "It helps your running game if you have to defend the pass. Hit on a few passes and you're going to make some big runs and if you don't, you have to make people miss and he has that ability to make people miss."
Dillon, who led the NFL with a dozen 20-yard runs last season, has just one this year on the 40-yarder in the opener. But he made enough people in Pittsburgh miss last Sunday against the swarming Steelers that it impressed Anderson.
On the Bengals' first run of the second half, Dillon made the safety whiff on his way to a 14-yarder (his longest of the day) that pushed the Bengals into the red zone and Dillon to the 69-yard mark on a 4.6 yards per carry. But left guard Matt O'Dwyer and wide receiver Peter Warrick both were called for holding, the Bengals had to pass to get out of a first-and-20 hole, and Dillon carried just five more times for nine yards as the Bengals had to hurry to scramble out of a 10-0 deficit in a time-of-possession battle they lost by nearly eight minutes to Steeler running back Jerome Bettis.
"Now it's first-and-20 and we can't run," Dillon said. "We've got to pass. To me, I'm at my best in the third, fourth quarter. But I've only run (twice in the fourth quarter the last two games). We've got to get everything straightened out so we can execute and it doesn't come down to where we're out of sync like that."
Fullback Lorenzo Neal, seeking to block for a fifth 1,000-yard runner in five straight seasons, knows of such things. It's a pretty easy call for him.
"We can't shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties," Neal said. "We have too many times where there is one individual break down with holding or missing a block. . .We just have to keep with it. Keep sawing wood and we'll get it."
Last year, Dillon began his season against five teams that included three defenses (Baltimore, Tennessee, Miami) that finished ranked in the NFL's top six, and another (Jacksonville) that finished ranked 11th against the run.
But this year just might have been tougher. In the past three weeks, Dillon has gained 57 yards against Baltimore's top-ranked overall defense, 46 against San Diego's No. 4 total defense, and 64 against the third-ranked Steelers.
Now come the No. 5 Browns (16th against the rush) and Dillon knows it's not going to be as easy as the previous two seasons in which he hung games of 168, 192, and 137 yards against Cleveland.
"They're completely different," Dillon said. "Different players. Different coaches and they're playing well. They look strong and quick to me. I don't think back to the past, anyway. What good is that? I treat every team like it's a heavyweight fight. Baltimore. Pittsburgh. Seattle. Cleveland. It doesn't matter. They're all heavyweight fights and it's scheduled for 12."
The Browns didn't try to make a match with Dillon once Butch Davis became the head coach. Word was Davis was looking for an every-down back that could catch the ball, a role for which Dillon hadn't been used much until new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski arrived in Cincinnati this year.
Earlier this week, Davis said Cleveland preferred to use the draft rather than free agency to find their running back and that turned out to be James Jackson in the third round.
"That's fine," said Dillon, who signed a five-year deal with the Bengals back in May. "They're doing what they feel they have to do and they're winning. I felt this is the place I wanted to be anyway."
Dillon by the month:
AUG/SEP923 yards in 17 games; OCT 1,416 in 18 games; NOV. 1,526 in 18 games; DEC 1,300 in 13 games.