- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

Although Cincinnati is under .500 heading into Sunday’s visit by unbeaten Kansas City, Bengals fans are smiling.

The 4-5 Bengals, winners of four of their last six games, are a game out of first place (albeit in the lousy AFC North) this late in the season for the first time since 1990. That was the last playoff season for Cincinnati, which has failed to win more than four games in seven of the past 12 years.

First-year coach Marvin Lewis is the architect of Cincinnati’s renaissance. Lewis, who coordinated the fierce defense that won the Super Bowl for Baltimore three years ago, has instilled discipline and stressed the importance of conditioning and teamwork.

Those lessons have been learned. The Bengals, who finished 2002 with eight players on injured reserve, haven’t lost any this season. Running back Corey Dillon (three) and new tight end Reggie Kelly (two) are the only starters to have missed games for a team that is so well-conditioned it kept the ball for an astounding 13:48 and 28 plays in the fourth quarter last week while outscoring Houston 10-0 to win 34-27.

All told, Cincinnati has a 55-35 fourth-quarter scoring advantage compared to a 94-77 deficit in 2002. Last in the AFC with a minus-15 turnover ratio in 2002, Cincinnati is plus-3, fifth in the conference.

Since its opening loss to Denver, Cincinnati’s only bad performance was a 23-14 defeat at Arizona two weeks ago. Losses at Oakland (23-20) and Buffalo (22-16) and a home loss to Pittsburgh (17-10) all came in winnable games.

Receivers Chad Johnson (an AFC-best 807 yards) and Peter Warrick (on pace for a career-high 82 catches) have been excellent. Lewis has convinced Jon Kitna not to try to do too much and the quarterback has responded with a career year (84.1 rating, 13 touchdown passes, nine interceptions). Kitna has thrown for nine touchdowns with just one interception in Cincinnati’s four victories and has kept top overall draft pick Carson Palmer on the bench.

Unknown third-year back Rudi Johnson has made longtime focal point Dillon expendable. Johnson’s 182 yards against the Texans were the fifth most by an NFL back this year. And Dillon didn’t help himself with a “play me or trade me” tantrum after the big victory over Baltimore on Oct.19, or with a pregame fender bender the next week.

Free agents Duane Clemons, Kevin Hardy and Tory James have bolstered the defense. Clemons has four sacks for a unit that has averaged 21/2 takedowns over the past six games. Hardy, a career outside linebacker, isn’t entirely comfortable in the middle but is a leader. James is the Bengals’ best cornerback in almost a decade.

Lewis, who convinced owner Mike Brown to let him run the organization and hire the team’s first advance scout, also has shown that he can grow into his new role.

At last week’s weekly news conference, a live broadcast, Lewis said that only Bengals employees have a stake in the team’s success. Before the day was done, Lewis had called the radio station that airs the news conference and apologized to fans. Those fans may well top Cincinnati’s attendance record of 473,288 set in the last playoff year of 1990.

Like fine wine — Doug Flutie sparkled last week in his first start of the year for San Diego, but the 41-year-old quarterback isn’t the only fortysomething playing well. Kickers Gary Anderson (44) of Tennessee and Morten Andersen (43) of Kansas City and St. Louis punter Sean Landeta (41) are having solid years for playoff-bound teams.

Oakland receiver Jerry Rice (41) and Detroit guard Ray Brown (40) are on bad teams, but Rice is eighth in the AFC in catches and receiving yards and Brown is a mainstay on a line which has allowed an NFL-low six sacks, a third of the league average.

Signed after Joe Nedney was hurt in the Titans’ opener, Anderson is 14 of 15 on field goals and 25 of 25 on extra points, raising his NFL career record to 2,290 points (72 ahead of Andersen).

“Gary has kind of been an unsung hero,” said coach Jeff Fisher, who lured Anderson out of retirement by allowing him to return home to Minnesota after games and not report back until Wednesdays. “He just quietly goes out there and kicks it through the uprights.”

Dropsies — Oddly, Seattle receiver Darrell Jackson was more productive last year after returning from a three-week layoff following a hit by Dallas’ Darren Woodson that sent him into convulsions.

Jackson has 14 drops this year — eight in the past three games — including one that bounced off his hands and into those of Washington cornerback Fred Smoot to choke off the Seahawks’ last-minute comeback attempt in last week’s 27-20 loss.

“I’m just going through a phase,” Jackson said. “I’m dropping the easy ones and catching the hard ones. [Woodsons hit] didn’t bother me. I’ve been through a lot of stuff worse than that hit.”

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