Rivalry already purring

5-24-01, 12:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ROSEMONT, Ill. _ Forget Mike Brown and Art Modell.

How is this for a quote from Ravens head coach Brian Billick, the man who led Baltimore to the Super Bowl title four months ago?

"When I've got my third-string quarterback throwing to my fifth-string receiver, what would you like for me to do?" Billick asked during a break here Wednesday at the NFL coaches' symposium.

The Cincinnati-Baltimore rivalry in the new AFC North promises to get hot even before realignment begins in 2002. Thanks in part to Billick.

Billick thinks Modell's history with the Bengals' franchise is a solid tie that makes the two teams a nice fit and he downplays his own role in the rivalry. Bruce Coslet's last act before resigning last season as Bengals coach was not shaking Billick's hand because Coslet thought he ran up the score in Baltimore's 37-0 victory Sept. 24.

"I totally understand Bruce's frustration," Billick said. "We happened to be the capstone. . .We just happened to be the team they played when that happened. . .There was a sequence of events that had nothing to do with Bruce. I was mad at the officials."

But some of Coslet's close friends believe Billick's decisions to throw for the end zone, use one of his replay challenges, and then kick a field goal in the last minutes spurred Coslet to bow out the next morning.

Privately, the Bengals coaching staff and they were all there is still fuming.

"I'm not going to get into this offensively and defensively what's running it up, what's not running it up, and when do you quit?" Billick said.

Billick senses things will be different for the Bengals this year and that the four teams will go through the cycles.

"A season can turn around on a dime. Look at us. Look at the St. Louis Rams," Billick said. "I don't know if there's been anything dramatic when you look at who (the Bengals) signed in free agency, but it's a mentality that Dick brings to them. Dick's done a great job. The critical question for them is the quarterback."

Billick thinks the exposure on the East Coast that they will get in Baltimore is good for Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. But he also thinks the 14 common opponents of a more balanced schedule changes the feel of a division.

"The idea of what a division represents is altogether different because you play so many different teams," Billick said. "You only play six games in the division and while they're still important, they don't mean as much as they did before."

DUNGY ON NEAL: Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy loves the way new Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal plays the game even though he kept him around for only the 1998 season.

"Lorenzo's problem is that he's a solid type who plays 18 to 26 plays a game and it eventually seems he prices himself out of the market," Dungy said Wednesday.

"A team looks at that and likes that and wants to pay that and can afford it. We liked him, but Tennessee could pay him a little more and he did a good job for them. We already had Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, so he was a little bit of a luxury. He's in a funny spot. Everybody's looking for that, but how much do you pay?"

Dungy knows what Neal will do this year blocking for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.

"He'll be excellent," Dungy said. "He was excellent for us. He's a leader, he's very good at what he does. If a team really makes a commitment to a two-back system, he's quite valuable."

THIS AND THAT: Head coach Dick LeBeau continues to talk with former defensive end John Copeland about returning, but there is still a big enough gap in money that it looks like he's back to leaning to a club that can offer him more after June 1. . .Linebacker Takeo Spikes has been cleared to practice next week after his surgically repaired shoulder passed muster Wednesday.

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