In NFL, Saints Could Be Heroes, Bengals Could Be Winners

More often than in any other town, football season ends in New Orleans. In the past 68 years, the duration of the college football polling era, 20 national champions have finished their seasons in

Jerry Dowling

More often than in any other town, football season ends in New Orleans. In the past 68 years, the duration of the college football polling era, 20 national champions have finished their seasons in the Sugar Bowl, more than any other game. Nine Super Bowls have been in New Orleans, more than any city.

This year, in a voodoo twist, the football season begins with New Orleans, because football is back but New Orleans is gone, at least for the time being. The big one everyone knew would hit finally hit last week, taking one of our greatest cities and maybe thousands of its people.

New Orleans lived on the edge, almost over the edge, 10 feet below sea level in places, next to the Gulf of Mexico and a lake twice its size, with the Mississippi River through the middle of town. Easy pickings for Hurricane Katrina.

The Jazz players called New Orleans "The Big Easy" because they could always find work there, but residents and tourists were enamored of every other kind of ease in a city that always danced with its own demise. The best places are the most dangerous because danger is beautiful and exciting — until it strikes and runs.

One casualty, it appears, will be the New Orleans Saints, already a troubled franchise by NFL standards.

Their inglorious history included 20 seasons before they finally broke through with a winning record in 1987. The past 18 years have been slightly more prosperous, a 144-143 regular season record that becomes 145-148 when you include their 1-5 playoff performance.

Over the past 10 years, the Saints have won an average of one game more per season than the Bengals, which might account for how the Saints sold out only two home games last year in time to prevent a local blackout. But Louisianans love football. The state pays the Saints an average of $18.6 million per year to do business, and Fox's New Orleans affiliate delivered the network's second-best NFL ratings last year.

The Saints will play this year, but no one knows where. New Orleans officials say it's probably four months before the city is back to anything like normal. The Sugar Bowl is scheduled for right about then, Jan. 2. If the Saints still are playing then, they will have made the playoffs, which they're trying to reach off two straight 8-8 seasons.

Sound familiar? Of course, it's different with the Bengals. If the Saints give a good showing at this point, they're heroes. The Bengals are past the point at which a good showing is satisfactory. They're a playoff contender.

We'll, they've ended up a playoff contender the past two years. They're playoff bound. We think. The difference between missing the playoffs and making them is starkly obvious for the Bengals. During the first two seasons under Marvin Lewis, they were 1-4 through five games and 7-4 for the rest. The schedule this year gives them a nice chance of establishing themselves early.

Based on last year's performances, which aren't absolutely reliable, the Bengals' schedule breaks into three portions — a breezy opening run, a gut-busting midsection and a stretch run of winnable games that will test the playoff worthiness of the Bengals' defense.

Following the game Sunday in Cleveland, the Bengals open their home season against the Minnesota Vikings, who are pegged by some as a serious Super Bowl contenders now that they don't have to mess around with Randy Moss. But the Vikings were 8-8 last year in the NFC, which isn't as good as the Bengals' AFC 8-8.

Then the Bengals play Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee, all within the Bengals' reach. Combined 2004 record of the Bengals' first six opponents: 38-58.

Next up is the killer section — two games against Pittsburgh, two against Baltimore and one each against Indianapolis and Green Bay. Those four teams combined last year for 46-18.

If the Bengals can't get on top of their first six games, the next six won't make them contenders. One ray of hope for the Bengals, however, is the preseason state of the Steelers, especially if they can't fight past injuries to running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley.

Just off form and gut, it figures the Bengals will be 7-5 on Dec. 4, when they've finished playing Pittsburgh. Next is a stretch in which they play Cleveland and Buffalo at home, along with Detroit and Kansas City on the road.

A murderers' row of games such as the Bengals face from Oct. 23-Dec. 4 can either break a team's will or make it more firm. Considering the Bengals' good finishes of the past two years, the guess is that the Bengals come out of it good enough to win three of the last four: a 10-6 season.

But they're not making 10-6, or even 8-8, if they don't win five of their first six. If the Bengals can do that, make themselves a true NFL contender, then break even or better over their second six games, we could be in for real magic.

So a lot rides on a strong start. This Sunday they go to Cleveland in the third year of a building regime to face a team that finished last year 4-12 and is into the first year of a new coach. The Bengals ought to win that game.

In a very real sense, the playoffs begin Sunday for the Bengals, because if they don't win early they will in effect eliminate themselves. If they can't beat the Browns and the Bears, how are they going to beat the Steelers and the Colts?

The Saints, by the way, would be in good shape under normal circumstances. Only six of their games this year come against teams with winning records last season. Maybe they can stay focused and give their fans a lift. If the Saints can mobilize around their circumstances and finally channel their talented squad into a winner, it would give everyone a lift. Here, we're all for the Bengals. But everyone is for the Saints.

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