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Bengals, Chargers battle to stay unbeaten

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It seems like decades since the Cincinnati Bengals played a game as meaningful as today's in San Diego. Actually, it was the 1989 Super Bowl, when Boomer Esiason and Stanford Jennings took Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and John Taylor to the last 32 seconds.

OK, the magnitude of today's game isn't near that.

But just two weeks into the NFL season, the Bengals and Chargers are just one short of their combined wins last season, when they were 5-27. And both are clearly on the upswing with soft schedules that could give them a boost toward a successful season.

The Bengals beat the Super Bowl champion Ravens 21-10 last Sunday before the smallest crowd in the two-season history of Paul Brown Stadium.

San Diego has already doubled its victory total after a 1-15 season last year, although its wins have come against Washington and Dallas, possibly the two worst teams in the NFL right now.

Still, a win is a win is a win and the next few games aren't hard, either. After the Bengals, the Chargers are at Cleveland and New England.

" Those days are here and we're embracing them right now," said Junior Seau, the rock of the defense. Hopefully, it can continue."

For both teams.

In other games Sunday, Kansas City is at Washington; New Orleans at the New York Giants; Green Bay at Carolina; Pittsburgh at Buffalo; Indianapolis at New England; Tampa Bay at Minnesota; Atlanta at Arizona; Seattle at Oakland; Baltimore at Denver; Cincinnati at San Diego; Cleveland at Jacksonville and Dallas at Philadelphia.

San Francisco is at the New York Jets on Monday night.

Chicago, Detroit and Tennessee are off.

BALTIMORE (1-1) AT DENVER (2-0)

Before the Broncos opened their new stadium on a Monday night, Mike Shanahan said his team could score 30 points on anyone. "Even the Giants?" he was asked about that week's opponent. "Even the Giants," Shanahan replied, and his team delivered, scoring 31.

Now, after scoring 37 in Arizona, it's "even the Ravens?" Baltimore still has the league's best defense, but the lack of a running game forced Elvis Grbac to throw 63 times in the loss to the Bengals.

The Ravens won 21-3 in a wild card game in Baltimore last season. Former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, returning to Denver this week for the first time, caught a tipped pass and ran it 58 yards for a touchdown.

MIAMI (2-0) AT ST. LOUIS (2-0)

This is the third game in an exhausting opening stretch for Miami, which won in Tennessee and beat Oakland at home on a late 80-yard drive orchestrated by Jay Fiedler, who has become a more-than-adequate replacement for Dan Marino.

St. Louis has demonstrated that its defense has improved, although it's had to work hard for both its wins — at Philadelphia in overtime and at San Francisco last week. One good sign: After the 49ers got within four points, the Rams ran out the final 6:35, pretty good for a team that likes to score in two minutes or less.

NEW ORLEANS (1-0) AT NEW YORK GIANTS (1-1)

Two teams on about the same level — upper middle. But the Giants might have a huge advantage — it's their home opener in a stadium 10 miles northwest of the World Trade Center, and the team and fans should be high.

The Saints, on the other hand, will come in after two weeks off and presumably rusty.

"There was a lot of stuff going on this last week," defensive lineman LaRoi Glover said. "Now we've got to go back to playing our game. This is how we make our living, how we feed our families."

The Giants were in the middle of that stuff, visiting victims of the terrorist attack and the scene itself before winning 13-3 in Kansas City.

"It's almost a relief that we won," tackle Lomas Brown said. "We felt like we did our part, bringing some cheer to the people. It's a big relief. A little of the pressure is off."

SAN FRANCISCO (1-1) AT NEW YORK JETS (1-1)

(MONDAY NIGHT)

The same emotional factor works here for the Jets, although this isn't their home opener.

New York stumbled by New England 10-3, the first win for coach Herman Edwards, who was about to give his team the usual pregame coachspeak when he went for something else — writing "inconvenience" on a blackboard.

"For about 11 days, we had to deal with a lot of inconveniences," Edwards said. "The people that can deal with inconveniences and keep their focus are the ones who do well."

The 49ers went through it, too — donating blood in the Bay area. Offensive tackle Dave Fiore grew up 16 miles from Giants Stadium. Safety Lance Schulters is from New York, and his father works in lower Manhattan, very close to the World Trade Center.

TAMPA BAY (1-0) AT MINNESOTA (0-2)

The Bucs are another team that was off for two weekends. The Vikings probably wish they were. The retirement of Robert Smith and the death of Kory Stringer has hurt the offense; Robert Griffith, the defensive leader, is out with a broken leg; and Cris Carter and Randy Moss have been griping at Daunte Culpepper and some assistant coaches

It's kind of a culmination of a lot of frustration for several weeks," Carter said.

KANSAS CITY (0-2) AT WASHINGTON (0-2)

Marty Schottenheimer welcomes his former team to Washington, although he'd probably like to wait until his team straightens out — if it does. After two games, the Redskins have been outscored 67-3, so Jeff George is now history and Tony Banks is the QB, with Kent Graham in the wings.

The Chiefs haven't been that futile, although both losses were at home — by three points to Oakland and 10 last week to the Giants. Trent Green hasn't been what Dick Vermeil has expected, and the wide receivers are basically no-shows.

GREEN BAY (2-0) AT CAROLINA (1-1)

The Packers look like the best team in the league right now, although their victims, Detroit and Washington, were hardly a test.

"It's not going to be this easy all the time," Brett Favre said.

The Panthers need a running game. Nick Goings, a free agent rookie, is the leading rusher because Tshimanga Biakabutuka can't hold on to the ball. Look for Richard Huntley, signed in the offseason, to carry a few times.

CLEVELAND (1-1) AT JACKSONVILLE (2-0)

The Jaguars' start is a little surprising because they were supposed to be on the down side. Unless things go very wrong, this should give them a 3-0 start.

The Browns have been good on defense, although Mark Brunell is not about to throw the seven interceptions they got from Ty Detmer of the Lions last week.

DALLAS (0-2) AT PHILADELPHIA (1-1)

The Eagles were very impressive in Seattle and could be 2-0 if Donovan McNabb hadn't stubbornly stayed in the pocket for three quarters in their opener against the Rams.

There's a simple sign that the Cowboys are in deep trouble: There's a quarterback controversy between Quincy Carter and Anthony Wright, both of whom should be apprenticing as third stringers. But Carter's thumb still hurts, so Wright starts this week.

SEATTLE (1-1) AT OAKLAND (1-1)

Tough game for the Seahawks, who haven't scored a touchdown in their two games and whose fans already want Trent Dilfer to replace Matt Hasselbeck.

The Raiders had problems at wide receiver in Oakland — Jerry Rice caught just one pass for 7 yards, barely keeping alive at 227 his streak of consecutive games with catches.

PITTSBURGH (0-1) AT BUFFALO (0-2)

Kordell Stewart isn't Peyton Manning. But he could get healthy against a defense that's allowed 856 yards in two games, 610 passing.

The Steelers are another team that's been off for two weekends. "The most important thing for us to is create some consistency, some continuity and some chemistry," Bill Cowher says. "It will come with time."

INDIANAPOLIS (2-0) AT NEW ENGLAND

Help! Indy has scored 87 points in two games, New England has scored 20 and will have Tom Brady making his first NFL start at quarterback.

But Brady might do OK — the Colts have also allowed 50 points and just picked up their latest in a long line of Giants defensive rejects, linebacker Ryan Phillips. WR Jerome Pathon has become a new offensive threat to complement Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison.

ATLANTA (1-1) AT ARIZONA (0-1)

The Falcons are one of those teams that might sneak into playoff contention, particularly if Chris Chandler can stay healthy. Michael Vick is a great complement, but at this point he's not ready for full-time duty.

Dave McGinnis will always get the Cardinals to play hard. But that's not a substitute for talent, particularly with injuries at wide receiver and elsewhere.

"Our margin of error on the field right now, because of our makeup, is very small," McGinnis says. "And our margin for injury is also very small. That's who we are, and it's where we are."