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TJ & Chad turning into a top tandem

CINCINNATI (AP) _ They were college roommates with little in common.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh got the attention with his ponytail and tongue-twisting last name. Chad Johnson tried his best to blend in _ no boasts, no breast beating.

Neither drew much attention when they showed up at Oregon State and shared a room for road games. It seemed that neither one of the physical education majors had what it takes to make the NFL.

No one is overlooking them now.

The Bengals' fourth-year receivers are starting to emerge as one of the league's best tandems. Each had 10 catches Sunday in a comeback victory over Baltimore that put them in the team's record books.

I've taken a long road to get here,'' Houshmandzadeh said.It's weird because Chad's situation is similar to mine a little bit. I don't think he had hopes of getting to the NFL, either.''

All it took was one big game to make them an item.

They combined for 20 catches and 332 yards in the 27-26 victory over the Ravens, the most catches and yards by any two Bengals in franchise history. Houshmandzadeh (pronounced HOOSH'-mahn-ZAH'-deh) had career highs with 10 catches for 171 yards, and Johnson had 10 catches for a career-high 161 yards.

It wasn't a one-time thing. A week earlier, Houshmandzadeh had 79 yards and two touchdown catches to go with Johnson's 117 yards in a 58-48 win over Cleveland.

Everyone already knew what Johnson could do. He led the AFC in yards last season, made his first Pro Bowl and drew attention to himself with his guarantees and boasts.

His partner couldn't even get on the field.

Houshmandzadeh led the team in receiving during preseason, then severely hurt a hamstring and missed virtually all of the 2003 season. He came to training camp last summer frustrated by his low rank in the pecking order _ no better than third.

As a kid, Houshmandzadeh never dreamed of a career in the NFL. He played only one year of football in high school. After getting only a one-year contract from the Bengals last April, he knew he'd have to do something fast or his career might be over.

There was a difference from the first day.

It's been the new T.J. Houshmandzadeh,'' coach Marvin Lewis said.He's a new guy. He's got a new life, a new spirit about him.''

He started taking his profession a little more seriously.

In years past in training camp after the morning practice, I'd take a shower and go eat, play (video games), go to sleep or something,'' Houshmandzadeh said.This year, I wouldn't even eat lunch sometimes because I would sit in the weight room, I would stretch, I would do this or that. I was just trying to take care of myself because what I was doing before wasn't working.''

He got his opportunity to emerge when Peter Warrick cracked a bone in his lower leg and went on injured reserve Nov. 5. With teams concentrating their coverage on Johnson, Houshmandzadeh has become the main option on many plays.

His 32-yard catch and run started the drive to Shayne Graham's winning field goal in Baltimore, the biggest play in the Bengals' most meaningful road victory since 1990.

They're going to have to produce another big game this Sunday in New England for the Bengals (6-6) to get back into the thick of playoff contention.

It's been awesome having T.J. kind of come out of the woodwork and fill in for Peter,'' quarterback Carson Palmer said.I think he's slowly, week by week, gotten more confident in himself and what he's doing. I know my confidence in him has grown tremendously. He has given us another go-to guy.''

The rest of the league is taking notice.

It's no one-game wonder,'' New England coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.I showed some of the plays to the team today. It's not like the coverage isn't good. The coverage, at times, looks really good. In fact, you might even say, 'I'm not sure he should throw that ball.' The receivers just go up and take it away from them.''

The Bengals thought the two of them could develop into a reliable tandem in 2001, when they drafted Johnson in the second round and Houshmandzadeh in the seventh. It's taken a while for it to work out that way.

I felt like I could do this all along, but you can only talk so much until you go and do it,'' Houshmandzadeh said.I feel like it's been a long time coming. It's just crazy the way things happen.''

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