Postseason dreams still forbidden

The Cincinnati Bengals do not dare to dream. Not yet. Not publicly.

They remain undefeated under Bruce Coslet, but some of the humility of the Dave Shula regime remains. If the Bengals imagined themselves making a run at the playoffs after Sunday's 34-24 pounding of Pittsburgh, the contemplation was confined to their innermost thoughts.

''Our biggest thing right now is to not look ahead,'' said John Copeland, the defensive end. ''Whatever happens is going to happen.''

''It's too premature for that,'' linebacker Steve Tovar said of his team's postseason prospects. ''We've still got a long road ahead.''

That road is long, with many a winding turn, but it no longer leads directly to oblivion. After Shula's 1-6 start, the Coslet detour has produced three straight victories and a sense of euphoria last observed on the riverfront during the Ickey Shuffle dance craze.

Now we have the Macarena and those misbegotten moves Ki-Jana Carter introduced in the end zone Sunday. This is not progress, necessarily, but at least it's not tedium. Pro football, it turns out, does not have to be drudgery.

''This,'' Copeland declared Sunday, ''was a day for fun.''

Nearsighted outlook

The Bengals had a swell time in stomping the Steelers, and they were able to enjoy the victory without immense concern for its implications. They improved their record to 4-6, but were still three games out of the lead in the AFC's Central Division; still preoccupied with digging out from the rubble of a ruinous start.

''I'll try to eat dinner tonight,'' Coslet said, checking his watch during his post-game press conference, ''and that's as far as I'm looking ahead.''

So be it. If the Bengals don't want to risk raising expectations for a second time this season, their long-suffering fans should probably be content to live for the moment. But if Coslet can extend his unbeaten streak in Buffalo next week, he will be hard-pressed to stem the outbreak of optimism.

Truth be told, he is having a hard time at this already.

''We're the same players we were before,'' Tovar said. ''We may not be that good, but we believe we are.''

''It's a high that you can't describe - that's how I feel right now,'' said Bengals cornerback Ashley Ambrose. ''It feels like we're unstoppable.''

Strange, the Bengals still don't look unstoppable. Quarterback Jeff Blake threw three interceptions Sunday, and three times tripped over his own feet as he faded back to pass. The dropback stumble proved to be one of his best plays all afternoon.

Rough and tumble play

Facing third-and-nine at the Pittsburgh 49 early in the fourth quarter, Blake lost his footing and fell for what appeared to be an untimely 11-yard loss. Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Gildon, who needed only touch Blake to record a tackle, instead lunged at the quarterback's head and was assessed a 15-yard roughing penalty.

Thus reprieved, Blake went on to conduct a 16-play touchdown drive that supplied the Bengals a 31-24 lead. Carter covered the last 12 yards with a pass reception, performed his goofy end zone routine and raised a resounding ruckus.

''There were times there where I couldn't hear anything,'' Coslet said later. ''That was great.''

The day's highest decibel count was probably achieved on the final play of the first half, when David Dunn returned a Pittsburgh kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.

Asked to account for the dramatic improvement in his team, Dunn cited three significant factors: ''Attitude. Attitude. Attitude.''

Asked to comment on the likelihood of a playoff push, Dunn preferred to savor what he had just seen.

''Let's see how long we can ride this wave,'' he said.

The Bengals will consider the consequences of their actions some other time. For now, they are content to study surfing.

''I'm getting pretty good,'' David Dunn said. ''I've got three weeks' experience.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 11, 1996.