BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Willie Anderson is pretty much maxed-out on material goods. What he wants, he owns. What he doesn't have, he doesn't miss.
The Cincinnati Bengals' prosperous right tackle is only impoverished in terms of the playoffs. He's never been there. He's never done that. He turns on the television in January, and he can hardly bear to watch.
"I feel bad after I watch the games," Anderson said Wednesday afternoon at Spinney Field. "I wonder, "Why can't that be us?' When it comes to football and winning, that's the only thing in my life I'm jealous about."
The Bengals last participated in a playoff game on Jan. 13, 1991, when Willie Anderson was a sophomore in high school. On their present course, the team's next playoff game will probably take place about the time Paul Brown Stadium is declared antiquated. Anderson is advised to grab for all the gusto he can get until he attains free agency.
For now, the closest the Bengals may come to simulating the Super Bowl experience is Sunday afternoon against Denver. The Broncos come to town with a regal bearing, a spotless record and that wondrous quarterback with all the teeth. They dare to ponder the possibilities of an undefeated season in Denver, and they appear to have a world championship team still on the rise.
The Bengals can not salvage their season Sunday -- even an astonishing upset would leave them two wins short of .500 -- but they should at least learn what sort of stuff they're made of and how much more of it they will need to compete for championships.
If there is a man among them who lacks for motivation this week, Bruce Coslet should have cut him in training camp. If there is a Bengal player who fails to get up for this game, let him try living down getting released at halftime.
Effort should be there
Coslet should not expect excellence from his players Sunday -- at their best, the Bengals would probably still get stomped -- but he ought to be able to count on effort. He ought to see tacklers swarming Terrell Davis from sideline to sideline and decoy receivers laying downfield blocks for Corey Dillon. He ought to be able to see a bunch of guys in striped helmets who still give a damn at the midway mark of a nowhere season.
This is not a must game for the Bengals in the traditional sense, but it will go a long way toward defining them as athletes. It will tell us whether they are worthy of our sympathy, or deserving of our scorn. (At last report, scorn was an 11-point favorite).
"Beating these guys isn't going to resurrect the whole season, but you can't sit around and say it's just another game," Anderson said, climbing into his street clothes. "This is one of the biggest games of the year for us."
Rookie linebacker Takeo Spikes, his playbook opened to "dime" defensive schemes on the floor in front of his locker, predicted Sunday's game would serve as, "the coming-out party for the entire defense."
Quarterback Neil O'Donnell, more seasoned, cautioned: "Let's face it -- there's not a weakness on that team."
Coslet, leery of attaching too much significance to such a daunting challenge, simply stated the obvious.
"You get to play against the best," he said. "We can relish it or dread it. It depends on how you look at it."
The Indianapolis Colts, winless last season after 10 games, nonetheless ambushed the defending champion Green Bay Packers. (They then promptly reverted to form, preserving their inside track in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes). On any given Sunday, yada, yada, yada.
"Anything's possible," said Bengals defensive end Clyde Simmons. "I've been on teams that were 3-6, 0-4 that made the playoffs. We just have to go out and show the people we're a lot better than our record."
Moral victories count for nothing in the playoff race, but a lot of Bengal fans would settle for one this week. If nothing else, it would show progress.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivanenquirer.com.