National review

6:50 a.m.

ESPN's Mike Patrick, set to call the Bengals' next step in playoff contention in Jacksonville for a national television audience, is cramming for Sunday night's exam. Like most of the nation, he's putting together his take on the undefeated Bengals from scratch and stats.

"Let's see them create an identity," says Joe Theismann, one of Patrick's analysts, and, "This is a hell of a test," says the other analyst, Paul Maguire.

But Carson Palmer and the Bengals aren't playing along. In this week leading up to the Bengals' only prime-time game of the season, Palmer has been the subject of current and upcoming stories in The Sporting News and ESPN Magazine, and has taken a slice of The Sports Illustrated cover. Don't look for him to do any clipping.

"I know my Mom will save them," says Palmer, who still doesn't garishly display his Heisman Trophy in his Indian Hill home. "It's just a magazine."

Such is the dynamic of the Bengals' bid to go to 5-0. The sense is that this is a defining moment for a young, up-and-coming team that is flexing its muscles. What everyone wants to know is if they can follow through during the next month and punch out some of the AFC heavies like the Jags and Steelers.

But if Marvin Lewis is the voice of these new Bengals and Chad Johnson is the face and Willie Anderson is the heart, then Palmer's low-key demeanor is the conscience of this low-profile team.

"It's an honor. It's flattering," Palmer says of the magazine attention. "But it's part of the deal."

Indeed, defensive tackle John Thornton doesn't remember last season's win over Miami on Sunday night and Denver on Monday night. But he does remember the games after, the miserable losses to Baltimore at home and Tennessee on the road, respectively.

"We got all excited and hyped up about it," Thornton says, "and look what happened. Look where we play next week."

At Tennessee.

They seem oblivious to the criticism that they have played no one. Veteran safety Ifeanyi Ohalete shrugs and says, "Maybe it's good we're going to sneak up on people. I don't know what they think, but here we are any way."

But they will get a break in the booth Sunday night, which is nice for a team where the perception is the national perception hasn't improved all that much.

"We basically come down on it from the positive side," Maguire says of his weekly preparation. "Look, they're 4-0 and people just don't realize how hard it is to win. You ever bet? It's hard to win in anything. Marvin has done a great job. It's like Belichick. There's no crap. None of this, 'Buying into the system.' That's their job, to buy into the system, and if they don't, they're gone. There's no favoritism."

Theismann, the former Redskins quarterback who threw the ball around with the Bengals the Friday before they beat the Dolphins (and has a torn rotator cuff to prove it), goes back a way with Lewis since his days in Baltimore.

"You find that teams are a reflection of their coaches and Marvin Lewis deserves a pat on the back," Theismann says. "One of the great moves was the value of a Jon Kitna playing while Carson watched, and having his presence a big part of this team. Chad's personality is fun. He's energetic, exciting, and I'm impressed with his work ethic. He's willing to pay the price. I look at him and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and I see Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. T.J. has emerged as quite an option. It's an intriguing football team."

It's a team that is different from even the one that eked out a 16-13 victory over the Dolphins on the game's last snap for the nation in their last Sunday night outing.

"We didn't see Carson Palmer do much in that one," Maguire says in what was his second NFL start. Now that he's had 15 more, Theismann sees, "a guy getting more and more comfortable," and agrees with the Troy Aikman comparisons.

Patrick, who missed that game because of heart surgery, goes into the booth every week with a massive self-designed depth chart for both teams that looks bigger than the plan to re-build New Orleans. He's got notes about starters, subs, scenarios that fight across the page.

But his notes from the last Sunday night Bengals' game he worked three years ago in Atlanta, the red-faced 30-3 loss, are about as relevant as Ashley Simpson. Only 14 Bengals are still around from that night the Dick LeBeau era unofficially came to an end.

"I've got 60 pounds of clips to get through" says Patrick in mid-week. "The Bengals are a great story. You got a guy like Marvin who has been a success and he comes to a place that hasn't had much lately, and they're no longer downtrodden. People like that stuff.

"I think they have terrific skill position guys," Patrick says. "People know about those guys like Carson Palmer and Rudi Johnson and Chad."

But while Patrick does the bulk of his research through clips, Theismann and Maguire primarily use the Saturday night production meetings to prep for the telecast. Once the Bengals arrive at the Jacksonville Marriott around dinner time Saturday, they stagger meetings with Lewis, his coordinators, and players from each side of the ball.

"Three on offense, three on defense," Maguire says. "The most important thing for me is who's playing and who's not," Maguire says. "The other thing is you can get an insight where they want to go. We're going to talk to the Jacksonville guys on Friday, so obviously we're not going to violate anything there and come back and say, 'This is what they're going to do.' You just want to see where they want to go.

"I really can't do anything until they do," Maguire says. "I do replays. Why something did or didn't work."

Theismann likes to peruse some keys stats in breaking down a team, such as completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio, red zone defense, rush yards. But he relies heavily on his pre-game interviews.

Since Theismann did some games for the Redskins this preseason, he worked the Bengals' win at FedEx Field back in August and took the opportunity to sit down with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan in preparation for this week. He's been impressed with how Bresnahan's simplified, no-nonsense approach has meshed with Lewis and says, "That young middle linebacker (Odell Thurman) has been sensational."

But he's interested in Saturday's sit down with Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson.

"There's a guy that's been through it all," Theismann says. "I want to get his thoughts on how different it is and what are the things that have made the difference."

Still, as much as the crew is on the Bengals' side of the story, it's like everybody else.

Theismann wants to see how Thurman and the rest of the defense stands up to Pro Bowl-like players in running back Fred Taylor and wide receiver Jimmy Smith.

Maguire, it turns out, was a linebacker on the 1961 Chargers that holds the record for the most interceptions in a season with 49. Even though it was set in 14 games, he doubts it will ever be broken. But his head turned when the Bengals had 12 in their first three games.

"You never know what happens if they keep getting big leads," says Maguire, who had five of the picks.

Patrick has read enough of the clips to know people are taking shots at the lack of competition in their first four games. How their opponents are a combined 3-10 and how they have faced one offense ranked higher than 23rd and one defense ranked higher than 26th. But he's not sure it's going to get cleared up any time soon.

"There's a lot of unknown quality in their schedule," Patrick says. "But they have a chance to play this whole season and still be unknown. They have a chance to go 12-4 and maybe not win their division because Pittsburgh is so strong. This is a tremendous test this week."

The Bengals may not be reading their clippings and the shapers of opinion may be holding out on shaping one. But Theismann knows one thing about this Sunday night.

"It's a quality opponent on the road," Theismann says, "and it's going to tell them some things."

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