It has started already.
Willie Anderson, who thinks the Colts' Dwight Freeney is a dominant pass rusher, kept hearing the name in the Monday meetings. Freeney can do this. Freeney can do that. Look what Freeney did. Look what they couldn't do to Freeney. Freeney. Freeney.
At which point Anderson wanted to say, "Hold on, man. The guy on the other side is leading the NFL in sacks." That man, Robert Mathis, is the guy facing Anderson with his nine sacks Sunday. But it's Freeney that is getting Hall of Fame attention from offenses, is everyone's NFL Defensive MVP at the halfway point, and is matched against Levi Jones.
"Willie Anderson may be the best right tackle in football and Levi Jones is really coming on," says one NFC personnel man. "You couldn't ask for two better tackles. They may be able to catch them with those two guys because the Colts do rely a lot on their pass rush. But the thing is, they can rush from all over."
So how do the Bengals play it? Do what the rest of the universe is doing and double team Freeney and let Mathis run wild? Not only that, but the Colts have four defensive linemen among the AFC's top 17 sackers.
Or do they do what they do most of the time and let their tackles work one-on-one with Freeney and Mathis even though the pair have combined for 16 sacks with similar lightning-quick upfield moves?
"You're going to have to buy a ticket," offensive line coach Paul Alexander said after Monday's practice.
Anderson, headed to his third straight Pro Bowl, and Jones, headed to his most Pro Bowl votes ever, have been worth the price of admission this season. Particularly in the last month, when they have kept some werewolves away from quarterback Carson Palmer long enough for him to navigate through some of the NFL's toughest pass rushers with just eight sacks in the last four games while compiling league-leading numbers in touchdown passes and completion percentage.
The Bengals have faced seven of the AFC's top 17 sackers this season in the last five games, and only Baltimore end Adalius Thomas has nicked them for a sack.
"They're as big a reason why the Bengals are where they are at this point as anything else," said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, a 10-year lineman for the club. "Carson has said it himself. If not for the line ... "
Anderson has high regard for the 6-1, 268-pound Freeney. But he's also impressed with the 6-2, 235-pound Mathis, as well as the 6-4, 274-pound Raheem Brock, the left end that plays a lot on running downs and has four sacks himself.
"They have erased their finesse tag if they ever had it," Anderson said. "That's not in their vocabulary."
COLTS RUSH (Top AFC Sackers):
Mathis, Colts 9; Vanden Bosch, Titans 7.5; Freeney, Colts 7.5; Allen, Chiefs 7; Burgess, Raiders 7; Schobel, Bills 7; Abraham, Jets 5.5; Hayward, Jaguars 5.5; Spicer, Jaguars 5.5; Carter, Dolphins 5; Haggans, Steelers 5; Merriman, Chargers 5; Porter, Steelers 5; Sapp, Raiders 5; Taylor, Dolphins 5; Reagor, Colts 4.5; Brock, Colts 4; Denney, Bills 4; LaBoy, Titans 4; Phillips, Chargers 4; Thomas, Ravens 4.
Anderson loves taking on guys like Mathis, a fifth-rounder out of Alabama A&M in 2003.
"Because he's underrated by you guys," Anderson said of the media. "It's natural to do that because Dwight Freeney is a dominant player. He's earned that respect. At the same time, you've got to look at that guy with nine sacks. Then you've got a guy like (tackle) Corey Simon who's a combination of power and speed. These guys are all alike. They're coached great. This game for Levi and me is going to be about athleticism. ... You're going to have to move your feet and be athletic with them."
Of course, it's something they've been quietly doing.
- Against Tennessee on Oct. 16, the Bengals held the leading AFC sackers at the time to one and Anderson blanked the then-individual league leader, Kyle Vanden Bosch.
The next week, Jones blanked old nemesis Joey Porter (with five sacks now) against Pittsburgh.
Jones kept the shutout string going the next week against Green Bay Pro Bowler KGB (3.5 sacks currently), who came into the game as the NFL's fifth leading sacker over the previous three seasons.
Two weeks ago in Baltimore, Anderson and Jones took turns subduing Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs for no sacks in a season he has two but got that many against the Bengals in a game last year.
"Levi is finally healthy and it's showed over the last month. I know this. He'll get some Pro Bowl votes," Alexander said. "And over the last month Willie has looked as good as he's ever looked."
Which is saying quite a bit. There has been no shortage of worry about the state of the knees of the Bengals tackles, but not as bad as the angst that filled the spring and summer.
Anderson is poised to start his 90th straight game Sunday, a streak that looked to be in doubt last season when he hobbled during the final half of the year on a knee with torn cartilage. Following a lengthy rehab from postseason surgery, Anderson didn't suit up until late August, but after a scare with back spasms in the second half of the Chicago game and an illness two weeks ago, Anderson hasn't missed a practice and looks to be as good as ever at age 30.
Jones went through the paces Monday even though his troublesome knee got rolled up in the final drive against Baltimore two weeks ago in an ugly scene in which he pounded the ground with the certainty he had torn it up. True to his M.O. as one of the toughest players on the team, he returned to finish the drive on a knee that also got rolled late in the opener.
It's the same knee that had arthroscopic surgery a day after tearing cartilage late in the 2003 season in Baltimore and played six days following the procedure. It has been the highlight of his 52-game consecutive start streak, but it also was a big reason he still had pain and struggled early last season.
He got another scare in, of all places, Baltimore, but the bye week came at the perfect time.
"Hopefully by the time I get on the field, it will be full go. I definitely need to be against Freeney. It's getting back to the point where it was (before the opener)."
Jones faced off against the rookie Freeney in his first NFL start on Oct. 6, 2002, back when Freeney was playing only on third down. Jones had to contend with a Pro Bowl guy in Chad Bratzke on running downs and all Jones can remember is the Colts wearing him out on first and second down and "then they bring the 4.3 in on third down after tiring me out," he said.
Jones referred to Freeney's time in the 40-yard dash, unheard of for a man so big, but he recalled doing "pretty well" against him except on just a few plays in their only regular-season matchup.
Freeney ended up with a sack in the Colts' 28-21 win, which was the second of his career, and he's logged 45 sacks in his ensuing 51 games. Jones has had the chance to face him in every preseason of his career, but preseason is preseason and Freeney didn't play at PBS this past September in the preseason finale.
Jones knows Freeney well enough to mix with him at offseason events, and they know each other from a draft experience in which Freeney went No. 11, the pick after Jones. The Bengals got roasted by the "experts" for picking Jones five slots early, and Colts head coach Tony Dungy got barely toasted for taking Freeney half a round early.
"You'd have to say it worked out for both sides," Jones said.
"I don't think there's any doubt that Levi has showed it was a good choice," Lapham said.
After a month of jousting with all kinds of athletes, Jones knows he's getting a different kind of guy in Freeney. He spins, he bobs, he weaves, he scorches opponents on the edge.
"Some have his athleticism and they've got his side-to-side quickness, but they don't have his straight forward quickness; speed upfield," Jones said. "There are guys that try to do that, but they're not as effective as he is."
Anderson is impressed with Mathis, a guy that came into the season with 14 career sacks. He says Mathis has the same kind of speed as Freeney and that it's the kind of challenge the anonymous lineman has to crave.
"These are the kind of games you have to come to play and show people what you're worth," Anderson said. "You want to block the best. As a lineman, it's the only way to earn our beans. Playing big in big games and allow our skill guys to go out and play their games."
Like Anderson, Alexander won't offer any hints on what the Bengals plan to do help him or Jones with a tight end or a back, or sliding the line one way or the other. Of if they'll help at all. Anderson says it's not humanely possible to go through a season getting no help. Coaches can scheme for it with deep nine-step quarterback drops, or keep extra guys in on certain plays to block.
But, as Lapham says, "they don't do a steady diet of" helping the tackles and, "I think Paul feels like they drafted Willie and Levi with the 10th picks, they're supposed to be one of the top linemen, let them go play."
Alexander rarely breaks off help in other areas for his tackles, but he does concede that Freeney has been double-teamed virtually every game this season and he says offenses are giving him the same attention they gave Canton-bound Reggie White and Bruce Smith in the previous decade.
"We don't do it a lot," said Alexander of helping. "We've got good players. We've got good tackles. 'Take an angle and block him.' That's how we look at it. We don't chip on a regular basis. I don't think a guy learns how to block. He gets a false sense of security and all those things. You've got to block a guy if you're a good player."
Lapham has watched the best of offensive lines scheme Freeney this season. He saw it in the opener when Ravens Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden struggled with Freeney and Baltimore had to help Ogden with a tight end or a back. With fewer receivers in the route, that paralyzed an already crippled passing game.
"They've got multiple pass rushers. You can't double-team everyone," Lapham said. "I don't think you go to (helping) right away. If you need it, you do it, but you see if you're guys can hold up and give yourself more options."