The Cincinnati Bengals are for real.

Believe it.

The Bengals' 3-0 start could be dismissed as a product of their less-than-overwhelming competition: They've beaten the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.

But to dismiss the Bengals as a playoff contender in the AFC probably wouldn't be wise. Two of their three victories have come on the road. They've beaten each of their opponents by at least 14 points, and plenty of fine seasons are crafted by clubs that simply take care of business and beat the teams they should beat. The Bengals have another should-win game Sunday: They host the winless Houston Texans.

People around the league now view the Bengals as a built-to-last contender, which is a tribute to the job being done by third-year coach Marvin Lewis. Lewis inherited the league's laughingstock franchise when the Bengals hired him in a close call; some in the organization apparently favored Mike Mularkey, then the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers and now the Buffalo Bills' head coach. But Lewis wasted no time in getting the Bengals back to respectability. They've gone 8-8 in each of their two seasons under him. And now he's looking to take the next step and make them a winner.

He was patient. Lewis could have stayed the course last season and tried to take another baby step by building on the success of his first season. He could have kept veteran Jon Kitna as his starting quarterback after Kitna's solid season in 2003. Instead, he tore things apart and aimed higher, and was willing to take his lumps last season with Carson Palmer -- the top overall selection in the 2003 NFL draft -- as his starting quarterback. Lewis lived with Palmer's mistakes last season, and now he has a gifted young quarterback who's ready to win. Palmer has thrown for eight touchdowns with only two interceptions this season while completing 71 percent of his passes.

Lewis has an offense with talented players around Palmer in tailback Rudi Johnson and wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He has a defense that is improving after getting experience last season for many young players. And, slowly, he is instilling a new organizational attitude, convincing the Bengals -- yes, the Cincinnati Bengals -- that they should be winners, that they shouldn't be satisfied with their early-season accomplishments and they should be hungry for bigger and better things.

"We're still writing the script," Lewis said during a news conference this week. "We had a good September, I'll say that. Now we're in October. Let's have a better October."

Tagliabue, Upshaw Back on Capitol Hill

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Players Association chief Gene Upshaw are scheduled to appear before the Senate Commerce Committee today, along with the leaders of the nation's other professional sports leagues, as lawmakers consider proposed legislation that would establish federal standards for steroid-testing in pro sports.

When Tagliabue and Upshaw testified before the House Government Reform Committee in April, committee members told them that football's steroid policy was the toughest in pro sports but still could be better. The focus today likely will be on the leaders of Major League Baseball, but it will be interesting to see if football's policies again are praised more than criticized.

Testaverde to Start Soon?

When the New York Jets announced the signing of veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde on Tuesday after losing Chad Pennington and Jay Fiedler to shoulder injuries, Coach Herman Edwards stressed that Brooks Bollinger is the starter entering Sunday's game at Baltimore.

But it shouldn't surprise anyone if Testaverde becomes the team's starter within the next few weeks. Edwards said he had a long talk Monday with offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger about the things the club would have to do to tailor its offense to Testaverde, and Testaverde and Heimerdinger had an approximately two-hour meeting Tuesday. Bollinger has thrown only nine regular-season passes in the NFL, and it's doubtful that Edwards would allow the Jets' season to slip away entirely without first seeing if Testaverde can be the answer.

Torn or Not Torn?

According to an NFL source, orthopedist James Andrews was uncertain after examining Pennington on Tuesday in Birmingham whether the quarterback had suffered a new tear of the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. The tests performed by Andrews were inconclusive, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the diagnosis remained unclear.

Edwards said during a news conference earlier in the day that Pennington had a new rotator-cuff tear and would miss the rest of the season. That was the diagnosis given by the Jets' medical staff after Pennington underwent an MRI exam Monday, a day after being injured during an overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pennington underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff this past offseason.

Andrews plans to do further tests in the coming weeks but, according to the source, it's unlikely that Pennington would play again this season even if Andrews ultimately determines that there's no new tear. Pennington and the Jets will want to proceed as cautiously as possible. Still, Pennington's long-term chances for a full recovery might improve if he doesn't have to undergo another major shoulder operation. . . .

Interest by the Jets forced the Tennessee Titans to promote quarterback Matt Mauck from their practice squad to their 53-man roster. Mauck had been preparing to join the Jets -- Heimerdinger was the Titans' offensive coordinator before being hired by Edwards in the offseason -- when Tennessee decided to elevate him to the roster. Mauck made it as far as the airport, but never got on his flight. Under NFL rules, a team can sign any player from another club's practice squad to its 53-man roster, but the original team can retain the player by promoting him to the roster.

Bryant on IR

The Detroit Lions placed cornerback Fernando Bryant on the injured reserve list, ending his season, because of a dislocated shoulder. The Lions signed wide receiver Scottie Vines. . . .

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Rashaun Woods was placed on the IR list after undergoing surgery this week for ligament damage in his thumb. The former first-round draft choice has only seven catches in his two NFL seasons. . . .

Wide receiver Jerome Pathon agreed to a contract with Atlanta. . . .

Guard Gene Mruczkowski and safety Michael Stone signed with New England. The Patriots placed safety Rodney Harrison on the IR list, officially ending his season, and waived linebacker Wesly Mallard. . . .

Quarterback Rohan Davey, formerly Tom Brady's backup in New England, agreed to a contract with Arizona.