10-13-03, 10:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
When it's all said and done by Sunday at 4:15 p.m., the Bengals' game against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium stands as the season's turning point. A game at home where they have yet to play well. Against a rookie quarterback. A win puts them back in the AFC North race at 2-4. A loss puts them at 1-5, three games, 12 quarters, and nearly a month behind first-place Baltimore.
This is the week that is for the new-look roster trying to avoid the old-look record. Coming off this bye week, there are 11 new starters in the 24 slots coming off last year's bye week on Oct. 21, 2002.
A few things we know:
They don't look like they'll make a move by Tuesday's trade deadline, so don't look for running back Corey Dillon or anyone else to be on any trading blocks. Instead, Dillon is at the centerpiece of head cach Marvin Lewis' playoff bid. Lewis, convinced his team is on the verge of making a playoff push instead of falling to a Bambino-like curse, spent the bye week working on weaknesses ranging from the running game to generating turnovers with no plans of turning to rookie quarterback Carson Palmer. Now he'll spend this week taking questions about his close ties with the Ravens' organization.
Everyone is talking about the Red Sox, Yankees and the Curse of the Bambino, but there are also murmurings in Bengaldom about a Bengals' Curse. The Bengals haven't been to the playoffs since the death of Paul Brown, or since linebacker Kevin Walker knocked Bo Jackson out of the NFL with a tackle, or since coach Sam Wyche said football wasn't all that important because there was golf to be played and tennis to be served up.
And, anyone notice the Bengals were 3-1 the night in 1990 Wyche barred a female sportswriter from the locker room and they haven't been two games over .500 in the middle of a season since '90?
But Lewis said when he arrived that "there's no old ship's pirate or captain," that has sentenced the franchise to futility.
"We've got a lot of good fortune headed our way. Let's be in position to reap the rewards of it," Lewis said. "There are going to be teams that are going to start going the other way, but the idea is that we're going to be getting stronger. That's how you win in the NFL."
Lewis is looking at the stat sheet instead of the Bambino for answers. A big one is the seven fumbles forced by the Bengals defense and the none that it has recovered.
"We emphasized that this week," Lewis said. "If you focus on it, and keep doing what you're supposed to be doing, fumbles are like sacks, they come in streaks. Being fast and being where you're supposed to be, you'll start to get them."
The emphasis remains on Jon Kitna and not Palmer.
"Jon gives us the best chance to win," Lewis said. "He's one of the top (percentage) passers in the league. Jon's just one guy in this (team) equation."
There are $4.2 million reasons why the Bengals can't trade Dillon during the season, which is the least it would cost them on this year's salary cap. Plus, they need him. Dillon stayed in Cincinnati to rehab his injured groin during the bye weekend, all signs point to his return Sunday, and Lewis knows he's a huge part of what he's trying to get done the second half of the season.
"We've passed the ball better than I expected and we've protected the passer as good or better," Lewis said. "But we're not going to be a football team until we run the football better. We have to run the ball. It's not disappointing. It is what it is. We didn't expect Corey to be out, but we have to get it done any way we can."
Lewis got his start under Steelers coach Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, but he made his name as the defensive coordinator for general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach Brian Billick during six seasons in Baltimore. Both are still confidants and their influences are now rampant through the Bengals' organization.
"Ozzie is really good at keeping other people calm and getting them to stick with the philosophy and the system," Lewis said. "Even if things aren't going well, he'll keep telling people to stick with it, stick with it, and they'll get there. Brian is great at identifying strengths and weaknesses of his teams, putting together a plan, presenting it, and here we go, here's the direction."
Lewis has a plan for the Bengals, and he knows it's being severely tested at 1-4 as the criticism comes with each loss.
"The challenge is not listening to the outside influences," Lewis said. "The amount of losing has worn down people on the outside. Every team that turns the corner has to go through this as they try to gain credibility. But once they've got credibility, they've got it."