Titanic rivalry

11-17-01, 10:25 A.M.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals-Titans may not be a natural rivalry like the Browns-Bengals.

Or a connections rivalry like the Bengals against Dick LeBeau's old Steelers.

Or an owners rivalry like Bengals-Ravens.

But even though the Bengals haven't beaten Tennessee in six games and have never beaten them as the Titans, it may be the most emotional rival Cincinnati has at the moment.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher has never backed down waving the memory bank at his players since the Bengals kept running Corey Dillon for the NFL's single-game rookie rushing record against them four years ago when the franchise was still the Oilers.

Ancient history? Bengals' players have felt an edge from a defensive staff that recalls Tennessee throwing some late, needless passes in the Oilers' 44-14 victory at Vanderbilt in 1998.

Throw in some current events, like Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau (yes, the defensive coordinator in 1998) screaming at his team a few times during Friday's practice, and the pot is boiling.

"Maybe that's good," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "I can't remember us winning after a good Friday practice."

Plus, former Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal has been telling the Bengals all week how Fisher would say during preparations for the Bengals: "They haven't had success. Hit them in the mouth, they'll quit."

"It was understood," said Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "It wasn't harped upon, but it was understood."

Something the Bengals can't understand is how the Titans get painted as the team with a grudge. The team that is being fueled by a controversial call on the last play of the game Monday night. The team that comes to Cincinnati portrayed as ready, angry and desperate to save their 3-5 season.

The 4-4 Bengals figure there's plenty of their own desperation and

anger left from the frustration that teemed in Sunday's 30-13 loss to the Jaguars. Cincinnati had more yards while keeping the ball longer, but couldn't control the emotional fallout of a controversial 38-yard pass interference call on Hawkins in the third quarter of a game the Bengals trailed, 14-13.

"We lost last week, too," Spikes said. "We felt like someone stole something from us, too. I don't know how they feel. All I know is they've got to come down here and play in between the white lines Sunday."

How about the fact that none of the players who play on Spikes' unit were on the team that beat the Oilers back in '97?

"I hate it," said Spikes of never beating Tennessee.

But the Bengals know they are walking a fine sideline. It's the line they crossed last week during the third quarter and let the game get away.

"We must have lost something," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "We gave up 21 points like that. You can't get fired up, but then fall apart, "

They lost their composure and they have spent the week listening to coaches emphasize keeping a cool head on top of heated emotions.

"If your main source of energy is anger," Hawkins said, "you're going to make a lot mistakes. You're going to go with your heart instead of your head. They've been telling us we have to play under control. This is definitely an emotional game. We've got the crowd on our side. (The Titans) are going to have to withstand the game early because I think we'll come out hot. Then we're going to have to keep our composure and ride the crowd. We can't have a carryover from last week because then it will just snowball into this week."

The Bengals have been consistent about their inconsistency. They haven't put back-to-back solid games together in two months. In their four wins, they have an average of 25 points and rushed for 162 yards with a total of three turnovers while allowing just four sacks. Their defense has generated 10 turnovers and 13 sacks in the wins. In their four losses, the Bengals average 8.5 points on 71 yards rushing, have turned it over seven times, and allowed 10 sacks. The defense has offered three turnovers and seven sacks.

But Hawkins and his mates have noticed they seem to play better when things can get worse. They are 3-0 in games that would have put them under .500. Maybe LeBeau knows it, too.

"You could tell by his body language that he wasn't happy," Hawkins said of Friday's outburst during a sloppy workout. "The last thing we want is to come in here (Saturday) and be told we're not ready for this game."

In vintage Low Key LeBeau, the coach downplayed it.

"I like things to look a certain way and they didn't look that way," LeBeau said. "No big deal, believe me. We picked up the tempo and it was good after that."

Leave it to Neal to sum up Sunday.

"Both teams are mad, both teams have to win, both teams are trying to stay in the race," Neal said. "I hope (his teammates) have the last game out of their mind. Tennessee's mad about the call. We're mad about the call. But we're playing Tennessee and that's what we have to see."

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