Bengals gaining league#039;s respect

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 7, 2003

CINCINNATI - No longer a laughingstock. Not good enough to be a winner.

Five games into coach Marvin Lewis' reclamation project, the Cincinnati Bengals have ended the ridicule and started doing things right most of the time. They haven't figured out how to fix the overriding problem - an inability to win.

A 22-16 overtime loss in Buffalo left them 1-4 and unabashedly angry that their progress keeps getting sidetracked by late-game breakdowns and blown chances.

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''No one went up there for a moral victory,'' cornerback Artrell Hawkins said Monday. ''Going into the game, it was like a playoff game.''

The Bengals haven't been to one of those since 1990, the last time they had a winning record. They've spent the last 12 years bungling and losing more often than anyone else.

They have improved under Lewis, a first-year coach who has brought the franchise up to NFL standards and preached that times have changed. He hasn't been able to do much about the bottom line.

The Bengals are still in last place in the AFC North, the only division where no one has a winning record.

''I would hope we'd be a little better than we are, but there was a chance to be worse, too,'' Lewis said Monday. ''But we've earned this. I'm very confident that we've learned some valuable lessons in these five weeks. We've learned from losing. If you don't learn from losing, then you have a habit of repeating it.''

The losses are starting to develop a familiar feel. Three of the four have come by a touchdown or less, two of them in the closing seconds.

They lost in Oakland on a field goal in the closing seconds, and let Buffalo tie it with a field goal in the final minute of regulation Sunday, sending it to overtime.

The Bengals got the ball first and Jon Kitna severely underthrew uncovered Kelley Washington on third-and-2, forcing a punt that set up the Bills' winning touchdown.

Just like that, another one got away.

''We've played really well the last four weeks and got only one win to show for it,'' Kitna said.

In the past three years, most of their losses were lopsided - 24 of the 36 by double-digits. They also developed a habit of congratulating themselves after a close loss.

For example, former coach Dick LeBeau said after a four-point loss to Baltimore last season: ''We definitely won the game, but we didn't win the game. This team deserves better.''

This team isn't into that kind of self-pity, a reflection of the new coach.

''It's time that we graduated from potential into getting into reality things, and that's winning games,'' Hawkins said.

The progress is apparent. Kitna has been better the last few weeks at avoiding the game-turning mistake, and the defense has avoided giving up a big play, allowing the Bengals to stay close.

Avoiding mistakes is one thing, forcing them is another. The Bengals are tied for last in the AFC in forcing turnovers - only five in five games. Kitna was off-target in Buffalo when a receiver was in position to make a big play.

''We're playing well,'' Kitna said. ''We're just not doing anything to get ourselves over the top. We're missing a few plays here or there that's causing us to lose games.

''It's not confidence. Confidence is not an issue right now. This team is playing very confidently.''

Just not very successfully.