-- Samari Rolle always picks up the phone when Chad Johnson calls. But this week, the Baltimore Raven cornerback had to hang up on his childhood friend, the chatty, flashy wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals.
"He called me Monday night before our game [at Pittsburgh] and was talking trash," Rolle said Thursday. "So I decided I wasn't going to talk to him."
It will be much harder to tune out Johnson on Sunday afternoon when the AFC North-leading Bengals (6-2) visit Baltimore (2-5). Johnson, who leads the AFC with 48 catches for 717 yards, has had some of his best games against the Ravens; in four seasons against Baltimore, he has had three 100-yard receiving games and has caught five touchdowns. Last year, he had 18 catches for 260 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens.
Johnson relishes the matchup with Baltimore; of all the games on the Bengals' schedule, this is the one he's been most looking forward to. He likes going up against two-time Pro Bowler Chris McAlister, whom he called one of the top two cornerbacks in the league.
"I always look forward to a challenge like that every week," Johnson said on Wednesday in a conference call with reporters who cover the Ravens. "And now, with Samari on the other side, it's even better with those two being the best tandem in the NFL of 'new school.' I call them 'new school' and then you've got 'old school' corners in case I go inside, with Dale [Carter, in his 12th season] and Prime [Deion Sanders, in his 14th season]. But all jokes aside, you cannot get a better matchup than what you'll get on the field this week."
Or a matchup that involves so many close friendships.
Rolle, 29, and Johnson, 27, have known each other since elementary school, and both attended Miami Beach High. Johnson idolized Rolle; he wore the same number as Rolle, tried to play quarterback like Rolle, and even tried to walk like Rolle. Said Johnson, "Samari is one of those big reasons why I am where I am today."
Johnson's friendship with Sanders began more recently, but is just as important. Two years ago, Sanders invited Johnson to a clinic for NFL wide receivers and cornerbacks at his Dallas home, and the two clicked immediately. Johnson, for all of his showmanship, is a student of the game, and he tried to learn everything he could from the eight-time Pro Bowler.
The two talk regularly, and their conversations have stretched into the early morning hours, touching on everything from football to relationships to children. Sanders calls Johnson his little brother; Johnson refers to Sanders as his spiritual and football father.
Sanders likes Johnson's exuberance, partly because it reminds him of himself. Johnson's touchdown celebrations this season have included a Riverdance-style jig, and he vows that he has "a really good one" planned for this week.
"I think that's why I love him so much," said Sanders, the player known as "Prime Time." "He has that swagger, that confidence, that Florida dog in him that you can't teach. You can't teach someone to be that way. It's just inside of him."
At the start of the season, Johnson posted a list -- "Who Covered 85 in 2005?" -- inside his locker. He listed every opponent, along with its top cornerback and two check boxes -- "Yes" and "No." (Through eight games, not one cornerback has received a checkmark for "Yes," which can be achieved by intercepting or breaking up a pass intended for Johnson.) Johnson created a special list for this week, geared specifically toward the Ravens. But on Wednesday, Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis removed the new list and replaced it with a checklist of his own: "Did 85 do everything he could to lead his team to victory 11-6-05?"
"It was going to be lovely," Johnson said of his Baltimore-themed list. "It would have been all over the news."
Said Marvin Lewis: "His list is good. My list is important."
But for all the attention that Johnson receives, he is not the only weapon for the Bengals, who have the fourth-ranked offense in the league. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught 17 passes for 287 yards in two games against Baltimore last season; he has 32 catches for 400 yards this season. Running back Rudi Johnson is fourth in the AFC with 681 yards on 162 carries.
Baltimore Coach Brian Billick has said throughout the week that Cincinnati has what he considers to be the best offensive personnel in the league. Quarterback Carson Palmer, in his second full season as the starter, leads the NFL in completion percentage (69.7 percent), yards (2,037) and touchdowns (16).
"He's the key to everything," Rolle said of Palmer. "Carson Palmer is probably the best quarterback we'll see this year, and we played against [Indianapolis's] Peyton Manning."
The Ravens certainly don't need to be reminded of what Palmer is capable of; they only have to think back to last December, when he led the Bengals to a 27-26 come-from-behind win in Baltimore. Cincinnati trailed by 17 heading into the fourth quarter, but Palmer threw for 200 yards and three touchdowns -- two to Johnson -- in the final period.
That game wound up being a turning point for both teams. Since then, the Ravens have lost 7 of 11 while the Bengals have won 8 of 12.
The Ravens have tried to learn from, but not dwell on, that loss. Rolle, who joined Baltimore in the offseason as a free agent, has tried to focus on the task at hand -- finding a way to silence Johnson.
As Rolle made his way toward the locker room around midday on Thursday, his cell phone rang. It was Johnson.
"I didn't answer the call," Rolle said. "I'm not talking to him this week."
But a new week starts Sunday.