Sage brush

10-29-01, 7:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Why are the Bengals 4-3 and in the playoff chase at Halloween for the first time since their No. 1 draft choice was in sixth grade?

It's a long list, starting with Mike Brown's shopping spree and Dick LeBeau's leadership. Corey Dillon's running and Takeo Spikes' emotion. Even the more mundane things. Such as Lorenzo Neal's helmet.

Neal's helmet? Bengals equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner have had to care for it like a rehab patient.

Neal, the Bengals' ninth-year fullback, uses it to be one of the top blocking backs in the NFL. In Sunday's 31-27 victory over Detroit, Neal snapped off the T-Nut that's on the side of the facemask and jolted the mask enough that the flap portion inside the helmet broke completely off. Plus, the valve in the helmet's frontal pad also shot out after a collision. Plus, the stick-on black stripes have to be replaced because they've been virtually scratched off.

Neal brought his hard attitude during the offseason to a locker room that hasn't always been hard. So did left tackle Richmond Webb. So did backup tackle John Jackson a year earlier. "The Three Wise Men," bring a combined 35 years and 31

playoff games in the NFL to a team that before this season had always been one of the youngest in the league.

"We're better equipped to handle certain situations," Jackson said of the difference a year makes. "Last year, it was the same old grind. They'd get in some sort of funk; expecting things to go (wrong) and just not play through it. This year, if something goes wrong, somebody picks it up. That hasn't happened in a long time. Play the next down. That's something that hasn't been evident in this club until this year."

Exhibit A is Sunday's "The Drive," which capped the Bengals' third fourth-quarter road comeback in five years. It wasn't as long or dramatic or as public as John Elway's "The Drive," from all those AFC title games ago.

But for the 2001 Bengals, the 13-play march that opened the fourth quarter and consumed 83 yards, 7:28 and the fresh 27-24 lead of the Lions, "The Drive," might be just as important.

Although Jackson wasn't in the huddle, it wasn't lost on him that Webb and Neal were. Webb, part of 25 Dan Marino fourth-quarter comebacks as a Dolphin, helped hold the Lions to just one sack. Neal, who led Titans' running back Eddie George through a furious second half Super Bowl comeback that fell a yard short, helped Dillon to 50 clutch yards in Sunday's fourth quarter.

"They've been there, done that," Jackson said. "It speaks volumes."

In the huddle much of the game, Neal continually asked his teammates, "How do you want your bye week? I want it to be winning."

"I said it, Richmond said it. Everybody said it," Neal said. "Before the drive, all game. You can only measure it as one win. But it was on the road and you have to win on the road. You just come out and play. It was a great drive."

Neal knows road fourth-quarter comebacks don't grow on trees. The last one for the Bengals was two years and three weeks ago in Cleveland. The next one was three years before that in Baltimore.

"You've got to develop the attitude when you have to go down and score," Webb said, "you've got to believe without a doubt we're going to go down and get it and win the football game."

The only difference Webb saw from a Marino crunch-time huddle and a Bengals' crunch-time huddle is that Cincinnati ran the ball more than the Dolphins would have.

"As far as the attitude of going down there and putting a drive together and scoring," Webb said, "the attitude is the same. Just different personnel.

"The biggest thing is to believe you can go down and take the ball and score," Webb said. "This being a young football team, it was good to get a win on the road. But not only coming from behind to do it. I think guys are starting to realize once you get a lead you have to take care of it and don't allow teams to get back in the game. It was a learning experience. Even though we won the game, you can't allow teams to do that."

Dillon is 375 yards shy of becoming the fifth 1,000-yard runner for whom Neal has blocked in the past five seasons. Neal has blocked for George, Tampa Bay's Warrick Dunn, and the Jets' Adrian Murrell. But he thinks the numbers say Dillon is special.

"Corey undoubtedly has more athletic ability than a lot of backs I've played with," Neal said. "He's natural. Eddie is just a hard-working guy, but athletic ability, I think Corey is athletically faster. Both are great backs and one day both will probably be in the Hall of Fame.

"Let's face it," Neal said. "(Dillon) has had a (278)-yard game and rewrote the record book for a single game. Just predicated on that, he's done things other guys haven't done."

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