Turning the tide

9-19-03, 3:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Sunday's game against the Steelers is Exhibit A why the Bengals hired Marvin Lewis as head coach.

Although his team his 0-2, Lewis brings the Bengals into sold-out Paul Brown Stadium after the most encouraging game of the Lewis regime. They came within nine seconds of going into overtime with the AFC champion Raiders in a place where they have never won and are showing all the signs they are about to turn the corner.

But recently, all of that has been a recipe for disasters that spawned the term, "Egg Game:" As in they've laid an egg in front of a huge home crowd at the worst possible time. In the last five years, they've had enough for a bed-and-breakfast omelette:

Sept. 20, 1998 _ After stealing one on the road in Detroit in overtime to go to 1-1, the Bengals return to a packed house at Cinergy Field and can't score a touchdown against the Packers in a 13-6 loss.

Sept. 19, 1999 _ After coming within eight seconds of upsetting Tennessee in the opener on the road, the Bengals open their home season with a team-record seven fumbles, three on kickoffs, in a no-show 34-7 loss to San Diego.

Sept. 10, 2000 _ The optimism of a new stadium and new quarterback gets swallowed by two Akili Smith interceptions in a 24-7 loss to the Browns during a curious day running back Corey Dillon carries the ball just 12 times after he gained 360 yards against them in two games the year before.

Oct. 21, 2001 __ After coming off a home sell-out win over Cleveland to go to 3-2, the Bengals come back the next week before 63,408 at PBS with a chance to take control of the AFC Central, but manage just 35 yards rushing in a 24-0 loss to the Bears.

Nov. 18, 2001 _ Before another jammed house at PBS of 63,865, the Bengals have a shot to go to 4-4. But the Titans' Derrick Mason deflates things before half the crowd is sitting down with a 101-yard kick return and the offense can again manage just 40 yards rushing in another one-touchdown loss, 20-7.

Now here they come again. A Bengals' victory over Pittsburgh combined with a Ravens' loss against a desperate San Diego team at home would guarantee that no team in the AFC North is going to be better than the Bengals' 1-2.

And all the vibes are that Lewis has properly set the scene this week as a man who has coached in six playoff runs.

"We'd win one game and we might (have a day off) and everybody is happy like we won the Super Bowl," said running back Brandon Bennett of those five seasons. "We'd won just one game and we'd lost like 10. It was a crazy mentality. They were just happy about little things. Now, it doesn't matter how good we do, how bad we do. We're going to go out and grind it, work hard, and Coach is cussing and fussing and getting all over guys. Every day, it's the same."

After practice one day this past week, Lewis was reminded what Steelers coach Bill Cowher said when the Bengals hired him:

"He knows how to keep perspective. When they win a couple of games in a row, that's going to be expected around there. It's not going to be someone running around with jubilation."

Lewis thinks he knows what Cowher meant.

"It's not how you handle winning, (but) has to handle defeat. It's important to learn how to lose," Lewis said. "When you lose, you have to get something from it. It's like taking something out of your side. Like losing a lung. Part of your body is missing. If you don't learn something from that, you keep losing those parts."

Lewis has a weekly theme and this one was pretty simple. It wasn't the importance of getting that first division win in the AFC North, or taking out the Steelers because they're simply the Steelers, or beating the coach that gave him his first NFL job.

"When you play this game, you know you have to climb the mountain the next week," Lewis said. "You don't get to start back at the point where we left off. You have to remember the steps you took along the way and how hard we worked to get to that point."

So the Bengals don't start even with 1:18 left, like they were n Oakland last week.

"He passed it on to his assistants," said right tackle Willie Anderson last Monday. "It wasn't, 'That's great.' Today, it was more like, 'We have to get it together. We have to crank it up a notch. The offense should have won the game for us.' That's what they said, and that's what our mentality has to be."

But, the idea is also to play loosely and relaxed. Lewis talked after the Denver game how tightly his team played, as if each guy was trying to make the one play to break the 12 seasons of losing. Lewis doesn't want his team playing with the extra weight of the last dozen calendars on its shoulders, just waiting around for the big mistake.

"There is nothing we can do but play," said linebacker Brian Simmons. "We can't play and announce. We can't play and ref. All we can do is go out and play, and think about what happens in the game after the game.

Lewis and the Bengals are walking that line between intensity and relaxation. He knows if you don't have fun playing the game, it's darn near impossible to win.

"We got too excited for Denver. We tried to do too much," Bennett said. "But now we've got a lot of guys who have been on good, established teams and they're helping calm us down and settle us."

Lewis' preparation this week is being reinforced by several of the veterans he brought to town with him through free agency. For once, at least on defense, the Bengals can counter Pittsburgh's post-season experience. The Steelers have 14 championship game appearances among their starters, the Bengals have six.

"You've got to have fun out there," Lewis said. "You have to do your job and be smart. But just play."

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