Sage Bengals salute Matthews

1-4-01, 8:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals backup tackle John Jackson turned 37 Friday and he celebrated by keeping a low profile on what his plans are for next year.

The Bengals hold the option and they aren't saying, either. Jackson plans to head back to San Diego for some golf and R and R, and the 10th-round pick out of Eastern Kentucky who went on to play in three AFC championship games says, "If I go out, I'll do it as quietly as I came in."

But Jackson, a Cincinnati prep product out of Woodward, says it is still fun. And he has taken note what 40-year-old Titans left guard Bruce Matthews is doing in Tennessee. Which is probably playing the last game of his career Sunday. It will be Matthews' 296th game, most ever by a NFL offensive lineman, as well as his 229th straight start and 232nd straight game for the NFL's longest active streaks.

"You've got to admire something like that," said Jackson, who has played 202 games himself. "You take a lot of pounding and you have to take care of your body. It's something he obviously wanted to do and it wasn't easy."

Bengals left tackle Richmond Webb, who turns 35 a week after Jackson, met Matthews at several Pro Bowls.

"He's a Hall-of-Famer, no question about that," said Webb, who is one himself for helping get Dan Marino there.

Webb is playing in his 180th game Sunday. He says he'll probably be back for No. 181 next year, but he'll take the next month to decide for sure.

Matthews has been battling injuries and left early last week. It's expected he'll do the same against the Bengals.

MATCHUPS: Calling the Pro Bowl voting "a popularity contest," he at least takes a certain pride that Corey Dillon already has 1,000 yards and Titans RB Eddie George is 111 yards short of the milestone without him. But Bengals FB Lorenzo Neal wants Dillon to outgain George Sunday, which means he'll have to move Titans LBs Eddie Robinson and Randall Godfrey.

The Bengals' defense has reached No. 10 in the NFL by not allowing a runner to rush for 100 yards in the last nine games. Bengals MLB Brian Simmons and ROLB Takeo Spikes would like to end the season on an even 10 against long-time Cincy killers Titans QB Steve McNair and RB Eddie George. In the last three wins, Bengals DE Justin Smith has a sack or an interception and he'll try to get one or the other against another first-round pick in LT Brad Hopkins.

Bengals LT Richmond Webb blanked nine-sack man Joey Porter last week and he'll try to do it again against Titans DE Jevon Kearse. The Cincinnati passing game bolted out of the black cloud last week and Bengals WRs Darnay Scott and Chad Johnson take aim at struggling Titans nickel back DeRon Jenkins. CB Robert Bean has to stand up against Titans WR Derrick Mason with Artrell Hawkins nursing a bad shoulder.

NEAL VS. ROBINSON, GODFREY: Neal, spurned by the Titans this offseason after two playoff years, has seen what he has wrought. Dillon already has 1,128 yards, the fifth straight season Neal has blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher. Meanwhile, George needs 111 yards Sunday to rush for 1,000 in each of his six seasons after not getting his first 100-yard game of the season until last week.

"I still want Eddie to do well, but I also want to outrush him," Neal said.

Easier said than done. In their last 51 games, the Titans have allowed just four backs to rush for more than 100 yards and none have been Dillon. He has a 100-yard game and a 200-yard against them, but not since Oct. 18, 1998.

Neal isn't pleased Larry Centers, Buffalo's third-down specialist with 77 catches, is the AFC's Pro Bowl fullback and that he's merely a second alternate.

"He's a great receiver out of the backfield and a hard worker," Neal said. "But if you predicate it on blocking and hitting guys in the mouth, I think I'm the best fullback in the game, hands down. It's a popularity contest. You sit down with any GM or head coach and take any fullback. You take my worst blocking game and their best blocking game, and I don't think it compares when it comes to being physical and knocking down linemen and staying after it."

SIMMONS, SPIKES VS. McNAIR, GEORGE: Isn't it fitting that whatever is left to gain in this season comes down to each unit's best players? Titans coach Jeff Fisher thinks McNair got Pro Bowl snubbed. He needs just 52 yards for a career passing high and he's already got a career-best 20 touchdowns. And the Bengals better come out ready. In the last seven games, he has seven touchdown passes in the first half.

McNair has torched the Bengals for 16 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his career, but it was his legs that hurt them back on Nov. 18 in the Titans' 20-7 win at Paul Brown Stadium. With Tennessee leading, 10-7 late in the third quarter and McNair facing a second-and-20 from the Bengals 47, McNair scrambled up the middle for 19 yards. On the next play, he rolled out and hit Kevin Dyson for a 28-yard touchdown that put it away.

In fact, McNair outrushed George that day, 68-61, on just five carries. The Bengals have to close the middle to him once they collapse the pocket on the rush. Bengals strong safety JoJuan Armour could also be a factor there on passing downs.

McNair missed practice Wednesday and Thursday when his father-in-law died. The club faxed him the game plan and he returned to work Friday.

George is starting to look like himself in what he has called his most frustrating season. His toe doesn't seem to be bothering him as much and he's coming off his first 100-yard game of the season last week against Cleveland with 130 on 26 carries.

That's not good news. He has five 100-yard games against the Bengals and has averaged four yards per pop.

SMITH VS. HOPKINS: Forget that Smith needs one more sack to get to 8.5 sacks, which gives him the Bengals' rookie record as well as $2 million in escalated salaries over the next five years. Here's a 265-pound guy who missed the first 51 days of the season and he has 55 solo tackles. That's third most on the team behind Spikes (106) and Simmons (73) and is the singular stat showing how well the Bengals chose back in April at the fourth pick of the draft.

WEBB VS. KEARSE: Kearse, who has the second most sacks in the NFL since he came into the league in 1999, has just one in the last six games. With Kevin Carter only managing two sacks on the other side, teams have been able to double team Kearse.

But he's still managed 10 sacks and he's always dangerous in what is regarded as the loudest outdoor stadium. Kearse has six of his sacks at home and this will be Webb's first game at Adelphia Coliseum. The noise at Jacksonville back on Nov. 11 hurt Webb against Tony Brackens, but he's been solid since. **

SCOTT, JOHNSON VS. JENKINS:** When Scott has caught at least five balls, or 100 yards, the Bengals are 4-1 this season. When he did both last week for seven catches for 113 yards, the Bengals had their best passing day in 11 years.

The Bengals need to go deep against a Titans secondary that is last in the NFL in pass defense and has allowed seven touchdown passes of at least 20 yards in the six games since the Bengals played them. For the season, opposing quarterbacks have been picked off just 11 times while throwing 27 touchdowns.

Injuries have robbed them of Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop and nickel corner Donald Mitchell. Jenkins, a player the Bengals courted in free agency, has not played well. The Bengals didn't push it when Jenkins turned down a one-year deal that contained a right of first refusal. Note the Bengals are 10th against the pass with three of their top four cornerbacks out for the year.

BEAN VS. MASON: Mason beat the Bengals back in November when he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. He may not get the chance this Sunday as the Titans continue to look at rookie wide receiver Eddie Berlin. Berlin had six returns last week against Cleveland for less than 100 yards.

Mason has been more of a force catching the ball. He has four touchdowns in the last five games and needs just 58 yards to become the franchise's first 1,000-yard receiver since Haywood Jeffires did it three stadiums (Liberty Bowl, Vanderbilt Stadium, Adelphia) and 10 years ago in Houston.

NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for this weekend, including 231 and 214. The first number is the NFL's longest active streak of games played, which belongs to Titans guard Bruce Matthews. The second number is the total number of NFL games combined played by the Bengals' six wide receivers.

11_Points Titans can't exceed for the Bengals defense to hold foes to less than 300 points in a season for the first time since the 1989 team.

296 _Yards Titans can't exceed for the Bengals defense to allow less than 300 yards per game for the first time since 1983.

2_ Sacks Bengals need to break the 1976 team record of 46.

2_ Sacks defensive end Reinard Wilson needs to become the first Bengal since Eddie Edwards in 1983 to have more than 10 sacks.

2 _ Sacks Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse needs to finish his third season as the NFL's leading sacker since he came into the NFL in 1999. But only if the Giants' Michael Strahan gets blanked Sunday.

12 _ Carries running back Corey Dillon needs to become the Bengals' all-time leading ball carrier, passing Pete Johnson.

6,394 _ Titans running back Eddie George's rushing yards since 1997, second in the NFL to Curtis Martin.

6,122 _ Dillon's career rushing yards since he came into the league in 1997, trailing only Martin, George, Marshall Faulk, and Jerome Bettis in that stretch.

24-2 _ Titans record when George carries at least 27 times.

7-2 _ Bengals record when Dillon carries at least 27 times.

2-0 _ Bengals record when Dillon carries 27 times this season.

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