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Bengals try to get over their stage fright

CINCINNATI (AP) - From the opening kickoff, it was awful.

The Cincinnati Bengals got blown out in their last nationally televised appearance, a 30-3 loss to Atlanta two years ago that cemented their reputation as the NFL's most bungling outfit.

They've spent two years trying to block it out.

"Not very much, except for the score," receiver Chad Johnson said, trying to summon his memories of the day. "That's all I remember."

Another defining day is at hand.

The Bengals (0-1) are the league's marquee attraction Sunday night, playing a Miami Dolphins team that is in line for their mantle as a forlorn franchise.

It's a rare opportunity to prove they aren't the old Bungles who hit a new low whenever the stakes were high - the reason there hasn't been a nationally televised game in Cincinnati in seven years.

They were reminded when they showed up for practice Friday.

Linebacker Brian Simmons had to step carefully over television wires strung across Paul Brown Stadium like a cobweb. The announcing crew set up in the team's interview room, forcing coach Marvin Lewis to meet the media elsewhere.

The Bengals were back in the big-time.

"It's great for them, to see them mature and handle it," Lewis said. "If we're going to go where we want to go - the better you are, the more attention you get."

They caught the nation's fancy last season by going 8-8 in Lewis' first year running the franchise. No longer down and out, they were up and coming.

Are they ready to take their next baby step while everyone's watching?

"It's big for them and their city," Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said. "They haven't had a national game like that at home for a while. It's going to be a big party for them, a big event. It's going to be exciting, but that can only carry you so far."

Usually, the Bengals get too carried away.

They had two chances to change their reputation last season - the home opener against Denver and the final regular-season game against Cleveland. They desperately wanted to beat Denver to set a tone. They needed to beat Cleveland to stay in playoff contention.

Result: their two worst games of the season, a pair of lopsided losses that showed they didn't know how to handle the spotlight.

It's been that way throughout their 13-year run without a winning record. More often than not, they play horribly on the national stage and don't get invited back.

The Bengals haven't played a Monday night game since 1992, a dozen-year exile that will end Oct. 25 against Denver. They've played Thursday or Sunday night games only three times in the last seven years.

That's what makes this one so important.

"Your dogs have to come out and hunt, your stars have to come out and be stars, your grunt guys have to come out and be grunt guys," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "You've got to be the same every week.

"We all know that now. We know we can't get caught up in the hype. We've got to stay on an even keel."

Fortunately for the Bengals, their opponent has been taking on water and listing since last summer.

Running back Ricky Williams quit a week before training camp. Halfway through an opening loss, they changed quarterbacks. Hurricanes have made their state a mess.

A.J. Feeley will make only his sixth career start on Sunday, looking to establish himself as an NFL-caliber passer after spending his brief career as a backup.

"You try not to get too caught up in all of that stuff," Feeley said. "For me, I stay in my bubble."

That's easy to say, much harder to pull off.

The Bengals aren't concerned about their kid quarterback. Carson Palmer was calm and efficient in his first NFL start, a 31-24 loss to the Jets last Sunday. He's been unruffled since he arrived from California.

"I'm just fired up to have our home opener," said Palmer, who has played only preseason games in Cincinnati. "I know the people of Cincinnati are fired up. I'm just excited for the atmosphere of the stadium. I can sense the atmosphere already."

That might be the main difference between these Bengals and the ones that failed so miserably in the past. This group doesn't dread prime time.

"There's a reason why they gave this to us: our improvement last year," Johnson said. "You win your TV games like this, next year we maybe have four. Maybe we play on a holiday, Christmas or Thanksgiving. It's little stuff like that I think about."

Little stuff to him, a big deal to his franchise.

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