September to remember?

9-7-01, 7:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Every Bengals' fan knows the sad facts of the last 10 autumns. They just don't seem to start playing until Thanksgiving.

Since 1991, they have a September record of 6-31 and an October record of 6-33. How many hopes have died in those eight weeks? How many have died in Week 1 as the Bengals prepare to open 2001 Sunday against the Patriots?

Just ask guys like Bengals Super Bowl coach Sam Wyche and current fullback Lorenzo Neal, men who rode uplifting openers that ultimately led to the AFC championship game 11 years apart.

Neal did it as a member of a Titans' team that erased of all things the Bengals' nine-point lead in the final 4:30 of a 36-35 victory in the 1999 opener. Tennessee rode it all the way to the one-yard line of the Super Bowl loss to the Rams.

"It was important, but it didn't mean everything," Neal said. "Remember, we were winning (26-7) in that game, too. It can set a tone and it helped set a tone with that team. But it's also a long haul."

How about when the Bengals opened last season at home by losing decisively to a Browns team that it beat just as decisively on the road six weeks later?

"I don't think what was important about that game came after, but before," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "We didn't prepare."

Wyche remembers the two goal-line stands the Bengals sprung on Phoenix in a raucous Riverfront Stadium to open the 1988 season. He wonders what might have been.

"I've always thought there was more riding on an opener," Wyche said. "The thing about winning an opener is it makes next week just as hopeful and bright as Week 1. If you lose the opener, you have immediate problems. People start the questions. Are they doing it the right way? Is the right quarterback playing? Whatever.

"If you win, the team can be thinking any number of things," Wyche said. "It could be, "We're better than we thought,' to 'We can beat anyone.' But if you have to win the next one, the pressure just triples."

The next game for the Bengals is in Tennessee, which means the pressure just amped up some more because the Titans could be the best team in the NFL. The game after that is home against Baltimore, the league's best team if Tennessee isn't.

Tight end Tony McGee, who has lived all but the 0-8 start in '91 and the 2-2 start in '92, knows what Sunday means.

"With the way things have gone around here for six, seven, eight years, it's probably more important than most teams," McGee said. "It's just the mindset. "We need guys around to believe they can win and the only way it happens is to win consistently and that has to have a starting point and that's the first game."

**

CAPTAINS CALL:** For the first time in recent memory, the Bengals didn't vote for captains and there are only two. Head coach Dick LeBeau himself re-elected right tackle Willie Anderson for the offense and outside linebacker Takeo Spikes for the defense. There is no special teams captain.

"Two is enough," LeBeau said. "I just felt we had some good things started and I wanted to keep it going."

It's going to be a tough opener for Spikes. He missed two days of practice earlier in the week to be with his ailing father in Sandersville, Ga., as Jim Spikes fights a brain tumor. Spikes isn't sure if his father's attention span is going to be able grasp that his son will be playing on TV.

"It's going to feel funny that he's not here," Spikes said. "But he's with me always. I'll draw a cross (on the tape of his wrist) with his initials and I'll go out there and he'll be with me."

INJURY UPDATE: QB Scott Mitchell's ankle has improved so much that LeBeau is going to take a look at him Saturday before deciding on his status.

DT Tony Williams returned to practice Friday after missing Thursday's workout. Williams needed surgery on the tip of his middle finger after breaking it in his front door, but he appeared to be able to grab despite using a wrapped-up splint.

MATCHUPS: Bengals RE Reinard Wilson makes his first NFL start at end and his first in 32 games against Patriots LT Matt Light, a second-round pick from Purdue making his NFL debut. In a rematch of an annual AFC East standoff, Bengals LT Richmond Webb makes his Cincinnati debut against Patriots DE Willie McGinest.

Bengals RCB Artrell Hawkins returns to the starting lineup and could end up against New England's lone speed receiver in Patriots WR David Patten. Bengals QB Jon Kitna goes against his Tacoma youth teammate Patriots SS Lawyer Milloy. In his first NFL game, Bengals P Nick Harris goes against a former Bengal and the man who will become the NFL's all-time leading punter Sunday in Patriots P Lee Johnson.

WILSON VS. LIGHT: The 6-4, 305-pound Light played very little in preseason because of an ankle injury early in training camp. He didn't play until the preseason finale, but he looked good and held up.

The Patriots' offensive line has been getting hammered for letting Bledsoe get sacked seven times, but the Bengals are so worried about what Bledsoe can to do to them that they've made getting pressure on him a priority.

The Patriots will probably try to run at the 6-2, 272-pound Wilson, who is mainly a pass specialist. Wilson will be relieved by Jevon Langford in the base defense, but neither has started a game since 1998.

The key to stopping Bledsoe is gumming up the running game, so backs J.R. Redmond (2.6 yards per carry) and Antowain Smith (3.5) can't get a mediocre running game out of its tracks.

WEBB VS. MCGINEST: Just looking at the stats, it looks like each guy had his day when Webb, the former Dolphin, played against McGinest. But stats tell you nothing here. In a 1999 game against the Dolphins, McGinest got a sack, but Webb was also awarded a game ball from that Miami win over New England.

Webb appeared to struggle early in the preseason against some inside games and stunts, but he's down to his playing weight of 325 pounds and the club is convinced he's a big upgrade over last season. The Bengals find out quickly.

HAWKINS VS. PATTEN: Remember the first play of last season? When Browns quarterback Tim Couch picked on Hawkins and got off a 65-yard pass to Patten?

It was a blown coverage, but everyone will be watching Hawkins in his first game since winning the job outright after last year's benching.

Patten comes off the bench after Troy Brown and Bert Emanuel. While Brown is a reliable guy who can hurt you (he had eight catches for 110 yards in last year's 16-13 win over the Bengals), Patten is the only guy approaching the now departed Terry Glenn's speed.

The Bengals have to be glad Glenn is gone after gouging them for 11 catches and 129 yards last season.

KITNA VS. MILLOY: Lincoln High in Tacoma, Wash., has this one circled. The youth and high school teammates play a key role in this game with Milloy looking out for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon. But he has 17 career interceptions and Kitna is coming off a regular season he threw 19 picks and a preseason in which he had two more.

HARRIS VS. JOHNSON: The Bengals hope Harris can be what Johnson was for them: A solid kicker for the next 10 years. Johnson thought he had a shaky preseason, but he put seven of his 13 punts inside the 20 and held on to start his third season with the Patriots. He already holds the NFL record for most punts with 1,163, 746 of those as a Bengal.

WEATHER AUTHORITY: Channel 12 weather guru Tim Hedrick is calling for a muggy and wet opener. There's a good chance of scattered showers and thunderstorms, particularly later in the game. He sees a 15 to 25 mile-per-hour breeze with temperatures in the 78-80-degree range.

A reminder that no umbrellas are allowed in Paul Brown Stadium.

TICKET INFO: The Bengals, who didn't raise ticket prices last season, average $45.28 for general admission. Last year, that was 15th of 31 teams, so the club is most likely in the second half of the league for '01.

If club seats are included, the average price is $56.21 in a league averaging $53.64. The Redskins are the most expensive at $81.89 and Arizona the cheapest at $37.60

NUMBERS GAME: All the numbers you need for this weekend's game, such as 817 and 1,579. That's the number of rushing yards and total yards, respectively, the Bengals had in a preseason they led the NFL in both categories.

26 _ Total of 300-yard passing days by Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

10 _ Total of Bengals' 300-yard passing days since Bledsoe came into the NFL in 1993.

0 _ Total of Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's 300-yard passing days.

10-8 _ Bengals' record when Dillon rushes for 100 yards or more.

104 _ Yards per game Dillon has averaged in games coached by Dick LeBeau.

Plus-5 _ Patriots' preseason turnover differential tied for third best in the NFL.

Minus-5 _ Bengals' preseason turnover differential tied for third worst in the NFL.

38 _ Career interceptions by Patriots nickel back Terrell Buckley.

34 _ Career interceptions by the Bengals' five cornerbacks, 27 from Tom Carter.

43 _ Yards Patriots punter Lee Johnson needs Sunday to pass Rohn Stark's NFL-record 49,471 yards.

32,196 _ Yards Johnson had punting for the Bengals from 1988-98.

1,163 _ Johnson's NFL-best career punts.

0 _ Number of NFL punts by Bengals punter Nick Harris.

45 _ Patriots defensive end Willie McGinest's career sacks.

68.5 _ Career sacks from the Bengals' eight defensive linemen.

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