Bengals begin to believe they can contend in AFC North

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 28, 2003

CINCINNATI - From the outset, coach Marvin Lewis knew one of his toughest jobs would be getting his new team to believe in itself after a dozen years of losing.

Finally, the Bengals believe.

Two consecutive wins have moved the Bengals (3-4) into contention in the weak AFC North - in second place all by themselves, one game out. The two home wins also have changed the mind-set on the NFL's worst team over the last 12 years.

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''Guys are coming to games and saying, 'We're going to win,''' offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. ''In the past, we haven't done that.''

They certainly weren't doing it at the start of the season. They looked like the same old Bengals - good enough to stay close, not good enough to pull one out.

Linebacker Takeo Spikes left for Buffalo in the offseason because he wanted to win and couldn't take those numbing, close losses. He was rejuvenated the minute he joined the Bills and felt their confidence in a playoff run.

The Bills have gone a disappointing 4-4, while Spikes' former team is on the rise.

''It's funny, because I've heard Takeo say this about Buffalo when he was dogging us earlier in the year,'' said Anderson, who is one of Spikes' closest friends. ''He said the difference is, 'We believe we're going to win now.'

''We knew we were going to win this ballgame.''

The Bengals played their best game yet, beating first-place Seattle 27-24 without running back Corey Dillon. His car spun off a slick interstate entrance ramp and hit the guardrail before Sunday's game, prompting Lewis to list him as one of the inactive players.

It worked out anyway, as backup Rudi Johnson ran for 101 yards and Jon Kitna had another error-free performance - two touchdown passes without an interception.

The revival - three wins in the last four games - can be linked to Kitna, who has finally gotten over his penchant for throwing the interception that decides a game. Instead of trying to win a game with one forced throw, Kitna has learned that it's more important not to lose a game with one forced throw.

''For me, there was a big turning point right before the Cleveland game,'' Kitna said. ''It was a matter of me dealing with some of the demons in my past.''

In the last four games, starting with a 21-14 victory in Cleveland, Kitna has completed 63 percent of his passes for 954 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception - his arm was hit as he threw.

It's no longer assumed he's a caretaker for Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who has moved up to the No. 2 quarterback role.

The original plan was to bring Palmer along on the sideline for one year, possibly getting him into a game later in the season for on-the-job experience before he gets a crack at running the offense next year.

Now, Lewis is hedging - a reflection on Kitna's performance.

''Nobody has installed Carson as the guy for next year,'' Lewis said Monday. ''You're doing a little editorializing again. You're into next year.''

The Bengals haven't been in contention in November since 2001, when they started 4-3 before tumbling to 6-10. They haven't been this optimistic since 1990, when they were 5-2 and had their last winning season (9-7) and playoff appearance.

Part of the mood swing is based on the schedule. Their next two opponents have worse records - Arizona (2-5) and Houston (2-5), which lost quarterback David Carr to a sprained ankle on Sunday.

Lewis isn't worried about his team getting ahead of itself.

''We have not accomplished anything yet, so we have no reason to be overconfident,'' Lewis said. ''In some areas, we have a lot of improvements to make.''