Takeogate hits NFL

12-13-01, 2:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Takeo Spikes, the Bengals defensive captain averaging 11.5 tackles a game, is now all over the newspapers as well as the field.

Spikes has found himself on top of the trash talk heap that has taken over this week's Steelers-Ravens game in Baltimore.

Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis took exception to Steelers running back Jerome Bettis' observation in "Sports Illustrated," a few weeks back that Spikes is as good as Lewis, but doesn't get the recognition because he doesn't have the talent Lewis has around him.

"That's like saying, Dude, Where's My Car' is just as good asTitanic,' said Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe of Bettis' comparison. "At some point in time, you've got to be realistic. I don't mean no disrespect to Takeo, because Takeo Spikes is a great football player, but he's not Ray Lewis. Let's not fool ourselves."

And Thursday morning's headline in one of the nation's biggest papers, the "New York Daily News, bannered Sunday's Bengals-Jets game with, " Bengal loudmouth Spikes Jet set."

As his teammates read Internet printouts of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh verbal joust, they started calling Spikes, "Dude."

He played it down with the knowledge the Bengals go to Baltimore next week. But Spikes, who has always made a point of saying recognition is directly tied to wins and losses, is getting it now despite the Bengals 4-8 record.

"Playing in a small market, you don't get much (attention), but my name is floating around America, so I guess I must be doing something right," Spikes said. "My mind is on the Jets

right now. I'm not worried about that. When time comes for next week, then I'll worry about next week. I must be doing something right. I'm not worried about it. It doesn't bother me."

But it bothered the heck out of Lewis, last year's Super Bowl MVP, as the 8-4 Ravens meet the 10-2 Steelers in the game that could determine home field advantage in the playoffs.

"Jerome saying Takeo Spikes is better than me? Let's go find out," Lewis fired back. "They have to come here in three, four days regardless of what's coming out of their mouths. Tell him to tape that groin up and come see me at PSINet."

Bettis, who is supposed to play despite a groin injury, sensed Lewis was trying to pump up his team.

"I just said (Spikes) is as good an athlete as Ray Lewis, he just doesn't have the talent around him," Bettis said. "I'm trying to compliment another guy. So he brings that into a Steelers story? I guess they're jumping on anything right now."

Spikes earned a tabloid headline with comparatively tame comments in warning the Jets not to take the Bengals lightly. In Wednesday's conference call with the Jets media, Spikes was asked about the playoff guarantee Jets strong safety Victor Green made last week.

"That's the way he's supposed to look at it," Spikes said. "Coming from Takeo and the rest of the Bengals, we plan on having a lot of people sitting at home with us. Everybody is on edge. They can't lose two games, so to everybody who is talking it up pretty much wanting to play the Bengals, go ahead and sleep on it."

Spikes is starting to grind the spoilers' ax for a Bengals' team that is 4-8 with their next three games against teams fighting for the playoffs, such as the 7-5 Jets, or for home-field advantage, such as the 8-4 Ravens and 10-2 Steelers. Who knows what shape the 5-7 Titans will be in the Jan. 6 finale?

"Misery loves company," Spikes said. "We mean to sit at home with a lot of other teams and look at it."

Told Green didn't predict a win over Cincinnati, Spikes failed to be impressed. "Well, how do those guys think they're going to make the playoffs?" Spikes asked. "But don't sleep on it now. If you sleep on it, you're going be dreaming with us come January watching the playoff games on the weekend."

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