Last year, in Marvin Lewis's first season as an NFL head coach, the Cincinnati Bengals regained respectability by rallying from a 1-4 beginning to win seven of nine games and contend for a playoff spot. They finished 8-8, losing their final two games and missing the playoffs, but Lewis restored the dignity of a franchise that had become the laughingstock of the league. Although the team hasn't had a winning record since 1990, expectations for this season soared.
In the offseason, Lewis made a move that he knew could result in a backward step but was one that had to be made because of the economics of the sport and because it eventually could make the Bengals a built-to-last contender.
He made a starting-quarterback switch from veteran Jon Kitna, who was rock-solid during a 2003 season in which he had 26 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions, to Carson Palmer, the top overall choice in last year's draft who didn't play at all as a rookie. It has become the way of the NFL -- prized, expensive young quarterbacks like Palmer must play by year two because teams have so much invested in them and must find out whether they can succeed -- and Lewis was prepared to live with Palmer's mistakes. He could only hope that Palmer would mix in enough flashes of brilliance to give the Bengals a chance to continue their upswing.
The early returns weren't promising, as Palmer threw twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (four) during another 1-4 start for the team. But the Bengals used the "Monday Night Football" stage to announce that their season isn't finished. They beat the Denver Broncos, 23-10, in their first Monday night game since 1992.
"Obviously it's a big victory . . . a much-needed victory for our football team and the city of Cincinnati,'' Lewis said during his postgame news conference. "I couldn't be more excited for the guys and proud of them. They have worked extremely hard. We haven't always played smart [Monday] we came out and played pretty smart for most of the game. Their hard work and diligence paid off with the win. We just have to keep going. We're going to keep climbing.''
The biggest early-season disappointment for the Bengals, even more so than the struggles of Palmer, was the play of a defense that ranks last in the NFL against the run. Lewis, formerly the highly successful defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, took a more active role with the unit in recent weeks, and even replaced defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier as the Bengals' defensive play-caller temporarily. But Frazier had those duties back Monday night and the Cincinnati defense, even while yielding 110 rushing yards to Denver tailback Reuben Droughns, forced three turnovers and held the Broncos to their second-lowest scoring output of the season.
Palmer threw an interception but had a pair of tone-setting 50-yard completions to wide receiver Chad Johnson against Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey in the first half, one for a touchdown. Bengals tailback Rudi Johnson ran for 119 yards, 36 of them on a third-quarter touchdown.
"They were ready to play more than we were,'' Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan said during his postgame news conference.
The Bengals will have a difficult time duplicating last season's turnaround, with a second-half schedule that includes games at Baltimore, New England and Philadelphia and a home matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Lewis has made believers out of his players, and now they have the franchise's highest-profile triumph in quite a while.
"It's huge,'' Palmer said during his postgame news briefing. "It's a huge game for the franchise to finally get a Monday night game. Marvin said all week that we deserved it and to take advantage of it, and I think we did.'' . . .
The Broncos lost tailback Quentin Griffin to a knee injury that might be a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. Shanahan expressed hope that the injury is not as serious as the Broncos originally suspected, but said: "I think it is an ACL.''
Griffin began the season as Clinton Portis's successor as Denver's starting tailback but suffered a sprained ankle that provided a chance for Droughns, who has responded with three straight 100-yard rushing performances. . . .
Bengals defensive tackle Tony Williams had his season ended by a broken and dislocated ankle suffered on a "cut'' block by Broncos right tackle George Foster, who dived at Williams's lower legs. It's the sort of block that has Denver opponents regularly accusing the Broncos' offensive linemen of dirty play.
"I did not see it, so I cannot comment,'' Lewis said. "It's unfortunate.'' . . .
The Bengals might have to answer to the league because wide receiver Peter Warrick, who was listed as "out'' on Friday's official injury report because of a shin injury, played on a limited basis. . . .
Bengals cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James both started their careers in Denver, and each had an interception Monday night. O'Neal, who left the Broncos bitterly via a trade this past offseason after Shanahan first attempted to move him to wide receiver, raised his index finger in the air as he ran with the ball after his interception, and Lewis said: "We've got to fix that pretty quick.''
Couch Could Be Shelved For Season
It seems increasingly unlikely that quarterback Tim Couch will play this season. The quarterback-needy Chicago Bears passed on him Monday after Couch worked out for the club Friday and Saturday and underwent a physical. The Bears seemed unconvinced that Couch, who continues to be plagued by a sore arm, is fully healthy. His representatives were making plans Monday for him to be re-examined by Birmingham, Ala.-based orthopedic specialist James Andrews.
The career of the top overall selection in the 1999 draft continues to spiral downward. Couch was replaced as Cleveland's starting quarterback in the offseason when he and agent Tom Condon rejected the pay cut proposed by the Browns, who promptly signed free agent Jeff Garcia to be their starter. A proposed trade to Green Bay was scuttled when Couch and Condon were adamant that Couch would sign only a one-year contract with the Packers. They got their way, agreeing to a one-year deal with the Packers after the Browns finally tired of the stare-down and released Couch. But by then, Couch had lost valuable time that could have been spent learning the Packers' offense. He was slow to pick up the system in training camp and the preseason, was hindered by his sore arm and was released by Green Bay before the season. Couch and Condon have filed a grievance against the Packers charging them with improperly releasing Couch while he was injured. He kept the $625,000 signing bonus he received from the Packers but Green Bay was not obligated to pay his $625,000 salary for this season.
Andrews examined Couch and prescribed rest, and the Couch camp thought he was ready to return to the league. The Indianapolis Colts were interested in him as a prospective backup to Peyton Manning. But Couch and his representatives thought the best opportunity for him to play this season was in Chicago, with Jonathan Quinn struggling mightily as the Bears' fill-in starter for the injured Rex Grossman. Couch traveled to Chicago on Thursday and auditioned for Bears officials Friday, but his arm soreness flared up Friday night and bothered him during a Saturday throwing session.
The Bears decided Monday to stick with the three quarterbacks on their roster -- Quinn, rookie Craig Krenzel and Chad Hutchinson, who was signed after Grossman got hurt. Coach Lovie Smith benched Quinn in favor of Krenzel, a fifth-round draft choice out of Ohio State, during last Sunday's loss at Tampa Bay and apparently plans to start Krenzel on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field.
Packers Have Secondary Concerns
The Packers don't know if they'll have cornerback Al Harris or safety Darren Sharper for Sunday's game against the Redskins at FedEx Field. Each sprained a knee ligament in Sunday's lopsided triumph over the Dallas Cowboys, the Packers' second straight win after a four-game losing streak.
Sharper sprained his posterior cruciate ligament, and Coach Mike Sherman said during his news conference Monday that the team would outfit Sharper with a brace in hopes that he can play against the Redskins.
Harris has a sprained medial collateral ligament. If he can't play, the Packers will have two rookie starting cornerbacks against the Redskins. They already have elevated first-round draft pick Ahmad Carroll into the starting lineup at the spot opposite Harris, and Sherman said the top choices to replace Harris would be third-round selection Joey Thomas or Jason Horton.
Either would provide an interesting storyline. Carroll and Thomas apparently have patched up their differences after having a fistfight at the Packers' training facility earlier in the season following a film-room exchange of insults.
Horton is in his first NFL season after spending two seasons riding the bench of the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League. He attempted to enter the NFL draft after his junior season at Division I-AA North Carolina A&T, having been told by an agent that he would be a third-round pick. But his agent failed to file the necessary paperwork by the NFL deadline, and Horton was left ineligible for the draft and ineligible to return to college football. That was part of a series of setbacks for Horton, who had made the University of North Carolina's football team as a walk-on but, after being a part-time starter as a redshirt freshman, was dismissed from the team following an arrest in Durham, N.C., reportedly on drug and firearm possession charges. The charges were dismissed. Horton transferred to North Carolina A&T.
Veteran Michael Hawthorne started alongside Harris at cornerback early in the season, and Mike McKenzie was to return to that role after ending his holdout in a lengthy contract dispute. But the Packers traded McKenzie, who remained unhappy after rejoining the Packers and continued to generate headaches for Sherman, to New Orleans, and the coaching staff moved Hawthorne to safety after he lost his starting job at cornerback to Carroll. The Packers don't intend to move Hawthorne back to cornerback this week even if they're shorthanded at the position, Sherman said Monday.
"We all believe the safety position is a good position for him,'' Sherman said. . . .
The Packers also are unsure about Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera's status because of a sprained ankle he suffered during the Dallas game that had him on crutches Monday.
"Marco has always come back quickly from injury, so hopefully that will be the case here,'' Sherman said. . . .
The Packers have totaled 79 points and 914 yards of total offense in their past two games. Sherman has taken over as the club's primary offensive play-caller as offensive coordinator Tom Rossley recovers from an angioplasty. Rossley was in the press box during the Cowboys game, making suggestions to Sherman.
"When it goes well, it's rewarding,'' Sherman said. "You now have a [more direct] connection to what's happening on the field.''
Favre said after the Dallas game: "I think he's done a fine job. I feel like we've executed much better. We've executed like we were supposed to from the start. That would be the obvious bandwagon to jump on [Sherman's play-calling]. Mike's doing a fine job, but I don't feel like we're doing anything different.''
In a season that began with Super Bowl hopes and now could be back on course after recently seeming derailed, Favre still seems annoyed about losses to the Bears and New York Giants in which the Packers totaled only 17 points.
"Our problem at times this year has been maybe too much confidence,'' Favre said. " . . . It's frustrating to see what we did [against Dallas] and last week and know we should have done it against the Giants and Chicago. I don't see a big difference in our confidence right now and at the start of the season. I just see a difference in our production and execution. . . . It's baffling at times. . . . What we're doing the last two weeks is what we're capable of doing.''
The Packers have the same record -- 3-4 -- that they had after seven games last season, when Favre led them on a late charge into the playoffs. They have a bye after they face the Redskins, then face a difficult seven-week stretch of their schedule in which they play Minnesota twice, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit and Jacksonville.
"We're still under .500,'' said Favre, who could have his practice time limited this week by a sprained right hand but is expected to play against the Redskins. "As well as we've played the last two weeks, we still have a long ways to go. Hopefully it's just a start. It won't get any easier from here.''
B. Westbrook Could Be Out
The Ravens will be without suspended tailback Jamal Lewis when they play at Philadelphia on Sunday in the "T.O. Bowl.'' But the Eagles also could be without their starting tailback. Brian Westbrook bruised his chest in Sunday's overtime triumph at Cleveland, and the Eagles might have to lean on backups Dorsey Levens and Reno Mahe against the Ravens. Coach Andy Reid on Monday compared Westbrook's injury to the bruised sternum that has had quarterback Steve McNair in and out of Tennessee's lineup. . . .
The week-long focus for the Eagles-Ravens game will be on wide receiver Terrell Owens, who in effect rejected a trade to Baltimore during last offseason's dispute about his free agent status and forced a settlement that resulted in him being traded to Philadelphia. But Owens is more than accustomed to the spotlight. He was in it yet again last week for his reunion with Garcia, his former quarterback in San Francisco.
After the first of his two touchdowns against the Browns, Owens threw the ball at a sign that read, "T.O. Has B.O.'' After his second touchdown, he tore down a sign that had pictures of Owens and a rat and the words, "It Takes One To Know One,'' a reference to Owens insinuating in training camp that Garcia might be gay by saying that if it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, it's a rat. Owens received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for ripping down the sign, leading to a sideline conversation with Reid.
During his news conference Monday, Reid said: "He's an emotional guy, and he loves to play the game. I love that part of him. I think players feed off that. He's just got to be careful on what he does. . . . Heck, that wasn't a very good sign anyway. . . . Those are nothing compared to the ones hung here at the Vet when I first started. That was a mild one.'' . . .
Owens and Todd Pinkston on Sunday became the first set of Eagles receivers to top 100 receiving yards in the same game since Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams in 1992. . . .
The Eagles are 6-0 for the first time since 1981, but Reid is as low-key as ever. "As a coach, you've got to set the tempo,'' he said Monday. "If you change during winning periods and walk around with your chest out, I think players will follow you. If you're matter of fact and keep it business as usual, the players are going to follow that, too.'' . . .
The Titans are calling McNair's status day to day after his bruised sternum was aggravated during last Sunday's loss at Minnesota. The 2-5 Titans are down to last-stand time but might be forced to start backup Billy Volek when they host the Bengals on Sunday. . . .
The Colts are downplaying the sideline argument between Manning and wide receiver Reggie Wayne, caught by the television cameras during Sunday's loss to Jacksonville, that resulted in Wayne lightly shoving the quarterback.
"I don't think it's a big deal,'' Coach Tony Dungy said during his news briefing Monday. "I think it's been put behind us.''
Manning threw only two passes in Wayne's direction during the game, but Dungy said he thought it was less about that than about Sunday's overall frustrations. He called it "probably a microcosm of the whole day,'' and added: "When you're winning, when you're playing well, those things don't normally happen.'' . . .
It almost undoubtedly is too late to save Carolina's season, but the Panthers are juggling their offensive line. They have benched Matt Willig in favor of Todd Fordham at right tackle and soon could bench right guard Doug Brzezinski, with rookie Travelle Wharton taking over at left guard and Tutan Reyes moving from left guard to right guard. . . .
Seattle still is awaiting word from the league on the status of wide receiver Koren Robinson, who reportedly is appealing a four-game suspension by the NFL for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. . . . The reeling Cowboys will be without wideout Terry Glenn for at least two weeks because of a badly sprained foot. . . .
Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox did some soft-tossing on Monday as he works his way back from an elbow injury. He could be ready to play in a few weeks but will find himself in a reserve role, with the emergence of rookie Ben Roethlisberger. Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell also could be available soon. He is working his way back from hernia surgery and practiced Monday. . . .
Oakland has lost veteran guard Frank Middleton and rookie wide receiver and kick returner Carlos Francis for the remainder of the season. Middleton has a torn left quadriceps and Francis has a torn left ACL.