Playoff run: All treat, no trick

10-31-01, 6:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Fittingly, Tony McGee, the dean of the Bengals who had never been on a team that won its fourth game of the year before Nov. 10 during his eight previous seasons, summed it up.

"It's nice to be on a team that still has a chance at this point of the season," McGee said, "instead of being banished so quickly to the basement of the NFL."

Indeed, it is the first time the Bengals have been legitimately talking playoffs on this date since 1990. They talked it in 1995. But at 3-5 and without rookie running back Ki-Jana Carter, it was a hollow Halloween.

And why not now? On Wednesday? When the Bengals reported back to work for a streamlined week of practice during their bye? Why not, on a day when Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon won his third AFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his 184-yard effort last Sunday in Detroit?

Remember when the schedule came out back in April? Everyone said the Bengals had to make hay early because they played teams that went a combined 57-71 in 2000 before the bye week and played the teams that went 70-58 in 2000 after the bye week, which fell smack in the middle of the Bengals' 16-game season.

But the NFL is tilting upside down at an angle Parity Pete Rozelle would love. With one game (at Tennessee) moved to the last week of the season from the second week, the Bengals' foes in the last nine games have a 28-28 record this season compared to their final record last year, which was a combined 22 games over .500.

And the stretch they just got through? Those seven teams that were 24 games under .500 in 2000 finished Monday night seven games over .5000 for this season. Five of them have winning records and four (Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Cleveland) are in first or second place in their divisions.

" We don't have to do anything spectacular. That's what gives us a shot," McGee said. "We don't have to score 41 points every game. . .Because there's nobody like the '92 Cowboys and we've got good depth. . .We can make it if we don't jump offsides, or hold, or turn the ball over. . . .if we don't beat ourselves."

But with the next two games at 2-4 Jacksonville Nov. 11 and a Nov. 18 home game against 2-4 Tennessee, this is a cautious locker room.

And why not?

A guy like four-year cornerback Artrell Hawkins has never been on a Bengals team that beat Tennessee or won in Jacksonville.

A guy like fullback Lorenzo Neal played for the last two seasons on a Tennessee team that considers stopping Corey Dillon a personal crusade.

A guy like Jon Kitna quarterbacked an 8-2 start in Seattle two years ago that evaporated into a 9-7 finish and a wild card spot in the playoffs instead of a division championship.

"If we want to win our division, we have to try to win three or four games in a row, " Kitna said. "That's a different mindset. I don't know if we have that yet."

They haven't had it since Boomer II and 1997, which is

the last time the Bengals strung together three straight AFC Central wins. They also did it in 1996. Before that, they did it twice in 1990.

"We've got to be careful because Jacksonville and Tennessee are two teams we've traditionally had problems with," Hawkins said. "I like our chances right now. I think it's the best shot we've had against them ever, but they're still dangerous teams and they really are the same teams. Jacksonville has Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell (at receivers) and with Mark Brunell at quarterback, they have a hot day and it's going to take a yeoman's effort down in Jacksonville.

"If we look at records," Hawkins said, "that's going to be the start of our demise. We're not that good yet."

Tennessee always seems to be good, but Neal could be one of the 2.6 reasons for the Titans' 2-4 start and the Bengals' 4-3 start. That's Pro Bowl running back Eddie George's yards per carry without Neal leading the way.

Neal saw the Titans prepare for the past four games with the Bengals and he knows the wound from Dillon's rookie rushing effort of 246 yards in 1997 is still sore. Indeed, Cincinnati hasn't beaten the Titans since Dillon set the record at Cinergy Field Dec. 4, 1997 that Denver's Mike Anderson broke last year.

"(The Titans) said, 'Look, No. 28 will not beat us. We will make sure of that,'" Neal said. "They're very aware of that Thursday night game. That hurt them. They talk about that game still. They get jacked. A hungry dog hunts best, so we have to come out with more emotion and energy than those guys. The teams who are in a slump are the teams that fight you hardest. Look at Detroit."

Neal, a veteran of five playoff games, believes that's all the Bengals need to make the postseason. He says there is no question the talent is here. But he knows the club has to rid itself of the recent three-game stretch in which they dominated Cleveland, got dominated by Chicago, and dominated Detroit and still almost lost.

"We can't have the letdowns we've been having," Neal said. "We have to stay on top of those times when you're not as good as everyone says you are when you're winning and not as bad as everyone says you are when you're losing."

"That's what we have to prevent," Neal said. "At times, we stop doing that."

Kitna, whose '99 play-off run in Seattle ended in a home loss to Miami in the first round, knows things will be different post bye.

"Teams start game planning to take away the things that were working for you and you have find another way to continue to be effective," Kitna said. "I'm talking about winning the division. Winning the division and winning the wild card are two different things. You win the division and you get a home playoff game and bye that first week more often or not."

Kitna knows there are rookies playing big roles (Justin Smith, Chad Johnson, Nick Harris) who have never played in December or who have played in more than 10 games in a season. He also knows there are still some downers out there.

"There will be another game like Chicago where it gets ugly," Kitna said of the 24-0 rout 10 days ago. "We have to stay together as a team and know if you keep working as a team, four out five (games) are going to be good."

It's one of the reasons the Bengals signed Kitna. He's got that bulldog mindset he hopes this team has for the play-off run.

"There's no question we have a shot," Kitna said. "We put ourselves in position to do that being above .500 at the bye week."

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