Titans best beware: Bengals on a roll

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 at 1:00am

TITANS TUESDAY - Weekends haven't been happy ones many times over the last 10 years for the Cincinnati Bengals, but this year was different. So it is that the Titans will be facing a team next Sunday that in the span of 24 hours finally got its first-round pick signed and then won a season opener for the first time since 1997, providing coach Dick Jauron with an unexpected birthday present.

"I told the guys I only wanted two things for my birthday; a win and a few more birthdays," said LeBeau, who turned 64 Sunday. "They took care of the win, and I'll try to take care of the rest."

The Bengals took care of the Patriots with a 13-point third quarter, in which they held New England to nine yards, and scored on three consecutive possessions. The 23 points equaled the Bengals' total for the first four games of last season. They also got a lift from wide receiver Darnay Scott, who missed all of 2000 with a broken leg, but caught five passes for 104 yards against the Patriots.

"It couldn't have been scripted any better," Scott said. "I felt good about myself and my team. It wasn't really a plan to go to me. I was in there when we went after them. We connected on some good plays." The Titans will try to keep Cincinnati from building on its start, considering just how dismal the franchise has been when the season begins. Since making the playoffs in 1990, the Bengals have had losing streaks of 10 to open the season once, eight twice and six once (in 2000). After winning that opener in 1997, they then lost their next seven games. In the 10 seasons since that last playoff appearance, Cincinnati is 14-66 combined in the first half of the season.

They will also finally have defensive end Justin Smith at practice this week, after the fourth pick in the draft signed a six-year contract Saturday. Agent Jim Steiner made contact with the Bengals Friday, the first time in eight days the two sides had talked. Said Steiner, "The main reason it was done is Justin wanted it done by today."

Seems that could have happened a long time ago.

LEAF BLOWS AWAY

A huge cloud lifted (as if there are many clouds in San Diego) in the offseason when the Chargers released quarterback Ryan Leaf. The only thing Leaf wasn't blamed for during his three seasons with the team was traffic on the freeway, making new GM John Butler realize the stakes had now changed. "I do think it took away the excuses around here," Butler said of Leaf's release. "And excuses can be a crutch. Now we don't have the crutch here."

But what they have is a crushing opening-day win over Washington in which the defense held the Redskins to 161 yards. On 10of their 14 offensive possessions, Washington had three plays or less. And this was on a day where defensive coordinator Joe Pascale was home recuperating from back surgery and defensive end Marcellus Wiley was sidelined with a foot injury.

Quarterback Doug Flutie was only average, but the Chargers won despite four turnovers on a day where rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 113 yards and scored twice. Over the last two entire seasons, the team's leading rusher never had more than 384 yards.

"Doug Flutie was mediocre," admitted Flutie. "But I wasn't asked to do anything special. We did what we were supposed to do on offense. We obviously knew our defense was going to be there today to handle things."

JUST WONDERING...

*...Whether wide receiver Randy Moss and his $10 million signing bonus will decide to show up next week. Moss caught one pass in the Vikings' embarrassing home loss to the Panthers. Moss must have been looking ahead to his team's date at Baltimore next Monday night. Yeah, that's the excuse.

*...If Detroit coach Marty Mornhinweg wished he could have left Lambeau Field and jumped on his Harley during his team's loss to Green Bay Sunday. Mornhinweg did that during training camp when he didn't like the way a practice was going.

*...If other teams will go to school on what the Rams did to handle Donovan McNabb Sunday. Now, there's a switch: St. Louis actually doing something on DEFENSE that might be copied. For the most part, the Rams kept McNabb contained in the pocket and they also shut down running back Duce Staley. And it doesn't get any easier for the Eagles. They travel to Tampa Bay this week.

*...When someone in Cleveland will realize the team's offensive impotence isn't the fault of the coach. After quarterback Tim Couch was injured last season, the Browns scored 66 points in nine games and had one field goal or less in five games, including three shutouts. Coach Butch Davis picked up where Chris Palmer left off as the Browns managed just six points against the Seahawks Sunday. Of course, the Browns weren't alone. Eight of the 28 teams that played Sunday failed to score a touchdown.

Howard Balzer is celebrating his 25th year covering pro football. He is the national columnist for Pro Football Weekly, columnist and editor for The Sports Xchange, an Internet content provider, senior editor of Lindy's pro football magazine and is heard frequently on Fox and ESPN Radio.

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