Bengals happy to be back home against SF

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2003

CINCINNATI - The scuffed shovel leans against a pillar in the locker room, reminding the Cincinnati Bengals of a grand afternoon that seems so long ago.

Coach Marvin Lewis hoisted the shovel over his head after the Bengals knocked off undefeated Kansas City and moved into first place on Nov. 16, the biggest victory in Paul Brown Stadium's history.

The Bengals (7-6) haven't played at home since.

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''One month between home games,'' tight end Matt Schobel marveled. ''It will sure be good to be back in front of our fans.''

The NFL's feel-good story of the season is going to need a frenzied home crowd - and a little cold and a few snowflakes mixed in - to avoid being written off.

After winning two-of-three on a long road swing, the Bengals have to beat San Francisco (6-7) to stay in the front wave of playoff contenders. A 31-13 loss in Baltimore ended the three-game road trek and left them one game behind the Ravens in the AFC North and on the periphery of the wild-card chase.

The NFL's worst team since 1991 has shed its distinction by learning how to win at home - four in a row, capped by that high-profile victory over the Chiefs. Lewis used the shovel as a prop for that game, urging his team to keep focused and keep digging.

The thing they can't do now is dig themselves a hole with another loss like the one in Baltimore.

''That woke us up,'' right tackle Willie Anderson said. ''We've seen it. We've learned from it. We've moved on.''

The 49ers wish they could say the same thing. They haven't learned their most important lesson of the season: how to win on the road.

The 49ers are one of five teams that have yet to win away from home this season, going 0-6. They have a Top 10 offense and defense but don't play like it.

''We don't seem to play with the same excitement or flair that we do at home,'' quarterback Jeff Garcia said. ''There's not any reason for that.''

The road record is uncharacteristic. Since 1981, the 49ers have had only four losing records on the road. They haven't gone an entire season without a road win since 1979, Bill Walsh's first season as head coach.

When they're away from home, the 49ers tend to start slowly, make mistakes, fall behind and spend the rest of the game futilely trying to catch up. They've lost in overtime twice: 27-24 at St. Louis and 16-13 at Arizona.

When the 49ers got the Cardinals at home last week in the rematch, they routed them 50-14 as Garcia threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more.

Go figure.

''It's got to be a mental thing on the road,'' fullback Fred Beasley said. ''We've been a good team, but our record just doesn't show it. For some reason, we just can't put it together. There's no way we should be 0-and-whatever on the road.''

In the 1980s, the 49ers were the model for how to travel. Of course, Walsh had a star-studded lineup that won two Super Bowls against the Bengals and could play well anywhere.

Times have changed. San Francisco has lost its last seven road games since last season. It hasn't dropped eight straight since 1980-81.

Coach Dennis Erickson spent last week talking to his players about the road and analyzing every detail of the itinerary, trying to figure out why every trip seems to trip them up.

''I've thought about that a lot of times,'' Erickson said. ''You can only do certain things in preparation to play a football game.

''You leave on Friday, can't change that. Stay in a hotel, can't change that. We're on an airplane, I can't change that. We go 5 1/2 hours, I can't change that.

''We just have to focus and get energy on the road.''

A loss Sunday would end their already slim chances of making the playoffs, a bitter disappointment for a team that won the NFC West last season.

''You can't take the approach to these last few games that the playoffs are unlikely,'' linebacker Julian Peterson said. ''You've got to go out there thinking that we've got a chance to make it. When you talk about the playoffs, it's a difficult thing to consider, and it won't matter if we don't win all three of the games that we have remaining.''

The Bengals see it the same way, figuring they have to win their last three to make the playoffs. After wilting in Baltimore, they think they've got a better idea of how to handle big-game pressure this time around.

''We had it last week, we'll have it again,'' Lewis said. ''Let's have it again and again.''