- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

Here’s a sentence that would have been inconceivable this time last year: Cincinnati could clinch the AFC North today. That’s right. If the Bengals win in St. Louis and Baltimore loses at Cleveland, the NFL’s worst franchise of the past 12 years (55-137) will be playoff-bound.

Under first-year coach Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati can become just the fifth team to start 0-3 and make the playoffs and the first to reach postseason after losing 14 or more games the previous year.

Of course, the Bengals, 0-40 on the road against winning teams the last 13 years, must end the streak against the 11-3 Rams, winners of 13 in a row at home, while the Ravens lose to the lowly Browns. The Bengals are 8-6, their best record at this point since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

“Our goal was to win the division,” Lewis said. “Guys thought I was crazy, but you do things the right way in the NFL and you have an opportunity to win.”

Receiver Chad “Don’t Fine Me” Johnson is Pro Bowl-bound with 10 touchdown catches and an AFC-high 1,211 receiving yards, and halfback Rudi Johnson is just 125 yards shy of becoming the first Bengal in 11 years other than Corey Dillon to run for 1,000, but the key to victory is quarterback Jon Kitna. In the Bengals’ eight victories, Kitna had 20 touchdown passes and just one interception. In the six losses, his numbers were five and 10.

The NFC West champion Rams, who can clinch a first-round bye with a victory or a loss by Carolina, have their own inconsistent quarterback. Marc Bulger has an NFC-high 3,446 passing yards, but he also has 20 interceptions — although just three in the last three games.

“I think the talk of his interceptions had affected Marc,” Rams coach Mike Martz said. “I told him, ‘You throw an interception, you throw an interception. We’ll overcome it. The thing that makes you a good player is that you’re not afraid to throw the ball in there. If you lose that aggressiveness, then we can’t do what we do on offense.’”

Titans-Texans — Tennessee can clinch its fourth playoff berth in five years, the best stretch in franchise history except for 1987 to 1993. Ironically, the Titans’ opportunity comes in Houston, the team’s home when it was known as the Oilers.

AFC passing leader Steve McNair gave in to the pain in his calf and ankle last week, so backup Billy Volek started. But Volek injured his spleen in rallying the Titans to a 28-26 victory over Buffalo so they re-signed Neil O’Donnell, 37, whom they cut in August.

While the Titans (10-4) are pondering postseason whether or not McNair returns today, the Texans (5-9) are lamenting a slump that cost them a chance at a .500 season in just their second year. Houston hasn’t gained 250 yards in any of its last five games while scoring just five touchdowns.

Getting No.1 quarterback David Carr back from injury today should help, but the defense also is struggling. After not allowing a 100-yard rusher in their first six games, the Texans have been so abused six times in the last eight.

Broncos-Colts — The Colts (11-3) can seal the AFC South with a victory or a Titans loss and still have a shot at a first-round bye. Indianapolis is also in prime form, having humbled Atlanta 38-7 last week as Peyton Manning threw five touchdown passes, two to perennial 100-catch man Marvin Harrison. Also, Edgerrin James is averaging 4.0 yards a carry over the last five games, his best stretch since he tore up his left knee in 2001. When Manning passes for 99 more yards, the “Triplets” will have given the Colts a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard runner for the fourth time in five years.

“It’s definitely something special playing with those guys,” Harrison said. “We all know we’re going to play well. It’s just a matter of doing it.”

Though Denver’s fourth-ranked defense will have its hands full, the Broncos’ biggest concern is the state of Pro Bowl halfback Clinton Portis’ high ankle sprain. Portis, who averaged 160 yards over the last five games and is second in the NFL with 1,591, returned to practice Friday but took limited work and is questionable for today’s game on turf.

After three straight victories, Denver (9-5) leads the AFC wild card race and is in line for a first-round game back at the RCA Dome. The Broncos will be in postseason for the first time in three years if they upset the Colts and the Bengals or Ravens lose, but they know they face a big challenge today and next week at Green Bay.

“We know what we have got to get done if we want to make the playoffs,” quarterback Jake Plummer said. “There’s no room for error, and we play a couple of very tough teams. Clinton’s a big part of our offense. If he can go, that would be great.”

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