CINCINNATI (Jan. 4, 2006) -- Now that Chad Johnson has reached the NFL's biggest stage, he's got nothing to say.
The Bengals' top receiver and best showman intimated again that he's been muffled by a head coach trying to get his team focused for its first playoff appearance in 15 years.
Usually the center of attention in the locker room, Johnson declined interviews with a sorrowful shake of his head. He was a solitary figure, eating a plate of chicken and rice while teammates talked freely about their first-round game Jan. 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Asked if he would talk to the media at all, Johnson said, "Only if you pay my fine."
That was it. And that was fine with coach Marvin Lewis, who has tried various ways to subdue a player who keeps inventing new ways -- a Pepto-Bismol shipment, a Terrible Towel bib -- to tweak the next opponent.
"Wow. After 17 weeks! Man!" Lewis said, breaking into a huge smile. "Don't put Marvin Lewis in that decision. Good decision by Chad. He wants to focus on the week, and that's good."
Johnson insists it's not his idea.
Earlier in the week, Johnson told reporters that "higher authority" -- his code words for the head coach -- ordered him to keep quiet all week. Nothing had changed Jan. 4.
So, while receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh gave his insights into the game at an adjoining locker, Johnson sat by himself and ate lunch. The AFC's top receiver wore a Bengals stocking cap, an AFC North Champions T-shirt and a glum expression.
He didn't interact with teammates or watch what was happening around him in the locker room. When reporters approached, he merely shook his head. The only time he talked was when someone called him on his cell phone.
It was totally out of character.
"Hopefully he'll have a lot to say after the game," Houshmandzadeh said.
Everyone else will have a lot to say leading up to it.
The Bengals (11-5) and Steelers (11-5) split their season series, each winning on the other team's field. Cincinnati took control of the division with a 38-31 win at Heinz Field on Dec. 4, leaving the Steelers in danger of missing the playoffs.
Pittsburgh won its last four games, building momentum along the way. By contrast, the Bengals lost their last two games by a combined 72-30, raising concerns and prompting Lewis to get tough.
Johnson's silence wasn't the only change. Lewis compared the playoffs to an alley brawl and had the Bengals practice in their pads, hoping to get back that edge.
"Marvin told us we'll be in pads today and we've got to get our minds ready to go to work," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "It's not vacation time. We're not laying off. Marvin's going harder.
"We haven't been in pads (on a Wednesday) for at least five weeks. He said that today and we were like, 'Oh, we know what kind of day it's going to be."'
For Johnson, it will be an unfamiliar kind of week.
He was in customary form before the two regular-season games against the Steelers, praising their defense while repeating that he's too good to be stopped by anyone. He had four catches for 94 yards in the 27-13 loss in Cincinnati, and five catches for 54 yards in the victory at Heinz Field.
Before that rematch, Johnson wore a Terrible Towel as a bib for his midweek media session and promised an iron-themed touchdown celebration. After the victory, he said the Steelers' domination of the division was a thing of the past, like black-and-white television.
Now, the guys in black-and-gold are back with a chance to show Johnson they're not obsolete.
"He's going to say some random things and speak what's on his mind," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "To say that what he said puts more pressure on us or is bulletin-board material, none of that is needed. This is a big enough game in itself."
One that's missing a certain chatter.