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It's Chad vs. Champ as Broncos visit the Bengals

CINCINNATI — Chad Johnson leaned toward the tape recorders, ready to make another prediction.

"Do you want to hear one?" he said.

The Cincinnati Bengals' chatty receiver paused a second for drama, then shook his head.

"Naw. I'm going to keep it quiet this week," he said. "Next week I'll be back to my old self."

No teasing with antacids, no take-it-to-the-bank boasts. Leading up to the Bengals' first Monday night game in a dozen years, the gifted receiver with an affinity for the spotlight decided to keep it strictly low-watt.

Some of it has to do with his horrible performance in his last game. Some of it might also have to do with what's in store when the Bengals (1-4) play the Denver Broncos (5-1), a game more intriguing for its subplots.

This one tops the list: Champ Bailey covering Chad Johnson.

Champ vs. Chad. Pro Bowler vs. Pro Bowler. Shutdown cornerback vs. the receiver who never shuts up.

"He's got everything," Johnson said of Bailey, admiringly.

He doesn't give such compliments readily. This one comes from personal experience.

Johnson and Bailey were among the NFL players who worked out with cornerback Deion Sanders in the offseason, learning a few tricks from the master. They also learned a few things about each other.

Johnson found out that Bailey, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback obtained by the Broncos in an offseason trade, deserves all of the accolades. He's strong and fast and tough to fool.

"I'm not going to see anything I haven't seen before," Johnson said.

Bailey learned a thing or two about Johnson, who's big and fast and tough to silence.

"I think that's just his personality," Bailey said. "He loves to have fun. I've been around him. I know what type of guy he is."

Johnson's teammates saw a different side of him last week.

Known for predicting victories and tweaking opponents, Johnson was humbled by perhaps his worst overall game in four NFL seasons last Sunday. He had sent Pepto-Bismol to four of Cleveland's defensive backs with a note warning they would need it when he got done catching passes against them.

While dog-masked fans howled in delight, Johnson dropped three passes and made three harmless catches in Cleveland's 34-17 victory. A chastened Chad took full blame for the blowout and started quietly looking for answers.

"Nobody stopped me but myself," he said. "Nobody covered Chad. Chad dropped the ball."

He thinks he has found out why. Johnson got into a rhythm with quarterback Jon Kitna last season, timing passes so perfectly that he was able to look upfield as his hands closed around the ball.

Carson Palmer, who took over at quarterback this season, throws a much harder pass. Johnson found himself looking upfield as his hands started closing on the ball, only to have it bounce off his fingers or chest.

Johnson made sure to watch every pass into his hands during practice last week, exaggerating the move as a reminder. He figured the one adjustment was all he needed to get rolling.

"I have a chance again this week," he said. "I've got Champ man-to-man. It's going to be the same way: in your face, the best man wins. So I will be backtracking to my fundamentals on catching, like I'm in elementary school, and everything should be fine this week, I guess."

His tone lacked conviction, with good reason. He's going to have to be at his very best to do much against the best cornerback on one of the league's best defenses.

"He's just an unbelievable athlete," Palmer said of Bailey. "Everybody would say he's a prototypical corner. He's a complete package.

"You don't see it too often nowadays, guys you can just leave one-on-one all game and not worry about it. There aren't many of those corners left — if there are any. He might be the only one."

Johnson respects cornerbacks, but insists there's not one who can shut him down. As he looked for an explanation to the Cleveland game, he asked teammates if they'd ever had such a bad showing. He wondered aloud if Michael Jordan ever stunk it up.

"Michael Jordan had a bad game? For real?" Johnson said.

Told that Jordan scored a career-low six points in a game in December 2001 and followed it with a 51-point performance, Johnson pondered for a moment.

"So, maybe I could go from three (catches) to 13?" he said.

His tone made it clear he was joking — this time.