Bengals need win over Browns for shot at playoffs

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 28, 2003

CINCINNATI - The last time the Bengals played an historic game at home, Tim Couch and the Cleveland Browns came to town and made a shambles of the moment.

Are they up to doing it again?

The Bengals (8-7) need to win at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday to clinch their first winning season since 1990 and stay in playoff contention for at least a few more hours.

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If Cincinnati wins and Baltimore loses in the night game, the Bengals would win the AFC North and host a first-round playoff game.

''If we win, then we give ourselves a chance to get into the tournament,'' quarterback Jon Kitna said. ''Once the tournament starts, you never know what is going to happen.''

Standing in their way is an old nemesis with a knack for inflicting heartbreak.

The Bengals were counting on a turnaround when they opened their new stadium in 2000. The Browns totally dashed all those hopes with a 24-7 win in the inaugural game.

This time, the Browns (4-11) are reeling and the Bengals are the up-and-coming team - motivation enough for Cleveland to put up a fight.

''We're not going to the playoffs this year, so this is our playoff game,'' said Couch, who led the Browns to that inaugural win. ''It's going to be a playoff-type atmosphere as far as the crowd and the Bengals' energy on the field. They are playing for the playoffs.''

Who would have guessed it?

The NFL's worst team since 1990 was an afterthought when Marvin Lewis took over as coach. After a 1-4 start, Lewis has the Bengals on the verge of one of the league's most remarkable turnarounds.

They went 2-14 last season, the league's worst record. With a win over Cleveland and another by Pittsburgh in the night game, they'd be in the playoffs and the transformation would be complete.

''It's a big step in a matter of months,'' receiver Chad Johnson said. ''From 2-14 to 8-7, and it could be 9-7 and 10-7 or 11-7 (in the playoffs). Who knows? That's impressive for any coach, especially in this type of organization that's been down for 13 years.''

The Bengals were in control of the division until a 24-10 loss in St. Louis last Sunday dropped them a game behind Baltimore and set up their long day: Play an afternoon game, then watch another that will decide their fate around midnight.

Much of the locker room talk all week was about the Steelers' chances of knocking off the Ravens.

''It's ironic,'' linebacker Kevin Hardy said. ''I keep talking about that game, but our focus has to be Cleveland. Then we can turn on the TV when we get home.''

Most fans just assume the Bengals will fulfill their half of the equation and easily beat the Browns, who have lost five in a row and are coming off a 35-0 drubbing by the Ravens.

Tiger-striped players conditioned by years of disappointment know different.

''Cleveland knows what's at stake,'' offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. ''They know they can knock us out. I keep telling people, this is still Cleveland-Cincinnati, the same as Auburn-Alabama or Ohio State-Michigan. No matter what the record is, it's a rivalry.''

It'll be a significant upset, even by NFL standards, if the Browns pull it off. Injuries will force them to start their eighth combination on the offensive line.

There's also the matter of Couch's future. The one-time building block on an expansion team lost his starting job to Kelly Holcomb at the start of the season, but Holcomb struggled and got hurt.

The quarterbacks wound up sharing the job - Holcomb has started eight games, Couch seven.

Couch has one year left on his contract and isn't sure what the future holds as the season winds down. He's adamant the Browns must pick one quarterback and stick with him next season if they hope to rebound.

''There's really nothing worse than a quarterback debate on your team,'' Couch said. ''I don't think that's ever worked in this league, to have two guys who can be starters. You've got to pick a guy and you've got to stick with him.''

While the Browns begin to sort out their mess, the Bengals know that their future is as clear as the final score. If they can get one more win and a little help from Pittsburgh, they can start thinking about a postseason run.

''We're going to upset some people,'' said Johnson, who is known to predict wins. ''All we have to do is get there.''