Welcome back to playoffs

12-2-03, 8:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Officially, Sunday's game in Baltimore is huge The Bengals can claim what amounts to a two-game lead with three to play with a victory. A win for either means the AFC North is virtually theirs.

Unofficially, it's the Bengals' first play-off game in 5,063 days. Since the AFC Divisional game in Oakland Jan. 13, 1991, a 20-10 loss.

"For the guys who haven't been to the playoffs around here, they're going to know what it feels like," said defensive tackle John Thornton Monday. "Whoever loses this game is not going to be out of it. But who ever wins it is going to have one leg up."

Or, as middle linebacker Kevin Hardy said, "The Kansas City game was a great atmosphere. For a lot of guys to hear that this is going to be a step up, that is going to be hard for them to believe. But it is. In playoff situations, it's win or go home. That's what this feels like."

Both teams are 7-5 and in first place. A Cincinnati victory gives the Bengals the season sweep over the Ravens and the edge in the first tiebreaker if the teams finish with the same record.

A Ravens' victory evens the series, puts them a game up with three to play, and pushes the tiebreaker to the best record in the division. With the Bengals 3-1 in the North and the Ravens 1-2, a Cincinnati victory wraps up that tiebreaker.

The next tiebreaker is the best record in common games. At the moment, Baltimore leads that grouping, 6-2 to 5-4. After that comes conference record, where the Bengals lead Baltimore, 6-4, to 4-4.

Big?

"I think it's going to be the game that determines who goes to the playoffs," said tight end Todd Heap, the Ravens' leading receiver. " That's how we've got to look at it."

Even though they are first-year Bengals, Thornton and Hardy should know. They've played in a combined four AFC championship games. They are two of 14 Bengals who have played in at least one

playoff game, nine of them coming into the fold since Marvin Lewis became head coach.

"We haven't been there together, but we've got guys who have been there and you'd like to think you could help that spill over," Hardy said. "But the way we've played in the last four games, it shows the team knows what it's doing. Guys understand the magnitude of every game. Every Sunday, you can't have a letdown, and we haven't."

Thornton has found himself enjoying the looks on the faces of some of the long-time Bengals.

"You can tell the guys who have been through this. They're a little more low key, go about their business. But I feel so good for guys like Willie Anderson and Rich Braham, guys who have been here eight years or so and have never been to the playoffs. That's great to see."

Thornton knows exactly what it's going to be like in Baltimore and what he's going to feel. His Titans lost to the Super Bowl-bound Ravens in the 2000 playoffs after a season they beat them by a game in the AFC Central.

"You'd get goose bumps before playing Baltimore," Thornton said. "You know that crowd is going to be really into it. Ray Lewis is going to be dancing, the place is going to be loud, I can't wait."

It's just another challenge for Lewis in his bid to take the Bengals from road kill to road kings. During this season, they've already have won their first game in California since 1990, won west of the Rockies for the first time since 1994, and won their first back-to-back road games since 1995. Now they try to beat their first winning team on the road since a 16-12 win over the Steelers 13 years ago.

And, just like last week, they're trying to win in a new stadium where they have never won.

It's far from unfamiliar territory for Lewis. Baltimore is where he became the league's most respected defensive coordinator during six seasons. In fact, the last time the Bengals won in Baltimore, it was in old Memorial Stadium during Lewis' first season there in 1996.

"Marvin's done a phenomenal job and everybody, I think, in the country is excited that Cincinnati has a team that has this kind of viability," said Ravens head coach Brian Billick in his Monday news conference. "But we can't let that distract us, obviously.

"If we're fortunate enough to win, then we're just going to be those bad Baltimore bullies again, the guys that are killing this great national story, and get on everybody's bad side again."

Thornton, with the '99 Titans as a rookie, and Hardy, with the expansion Jaguars in the late'90s, have been a part of those national stories. Last Sunday's last-drive script over the Steelers in hostile Heinz Field looked more than vaguely familiar to Thornton when it got kick-started with Brandon Bennett's 27-yard kick return. That brought back some memories.

"I was in the 'Music City Miracle,' when we only had 16 seconds left and ran the kickoff back," said Thornton of Tennessee's improbable Wild Card playoff victory over Buffalo in 1999. "The one thing you learn is the game can swing if you play 60 minutes and that's what we did Sunday. I knew back in training camp this team had that potential; because it's got that same never-quit, never-give-up mentality. And now we're doing it."

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