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SAVE THE LAST DANCE With Bengals' Johnson planning big, Clements can't get himself backed into a corner

You know a player's reputation when he shows an archaic form of class and gets criticized for being, well, boring. Did you see Chad Johnson on Sunday after he scored against Detroit? There was no dance, no look-at-me-I'm-The-Man celebration. He simply handed the ball to the official.

The nerve of that guy.

It was so un-Chad Johnson-like that Cincinnati Bengals fans, including a legion raised on the Ickey Shuffle, were outraged by the receiver's end-zone non-performance. What in Pop Warner's name was he doing respectfully handing the ball to an NFL official? It was as if Snoop Dogg had an awakening and became Bing Crosby.

How could he do something so . . . uncharacteristically pleasant?

"I'll be back to my old self," Johnson said this week.

By now, most everybody knows Johnson's act. He practically has his own weekly commercial, when he provides insight about the latest cornerback on his infamous list, which is taped inside his locker. ESPN checks in with Johnson, who says the list helps inspire him to play better.

The list has become a source of entertainment for everybody -- everybody not on the list, of course. Johnson already was preparing his celebration for when, not if, he scores a touchdown today against the Buffalo Bills. He suggested it would be something related to the holiday. It's Christmas Eve, and Nate Clements is coming to town.

"There are a lot of deer in the area of Cincinnati, so if you see a deer come out there, don't say I didn't tell you," Johnson said. "I'm serious. I hit him. He's bandaged up, but he's going to come out. Trust me, I've got Rudolph. His nose is red. . . . He's a prop. They might suspend me for the last game, but I think this one is worth it."

Last season, Clements held the receiver to two catches for 10 yards, so Johnson knows he's not facing a deer in headlights.

Clements has had a miserable season for a troubled team, partly because the Bills have lacked a consistent pass rush. He's still listed among the better defensive backs in the league in recent years. Clements has 20 career interceptions and could be a top free-agent because aggressive, experienced cornerbacks with good hands are valued in the NFL.

"I have goals and lists myself," Clements said. "It's nothing new, really, because I've been doing that since college. I have all the receivers I face. It's something you do to help you compete and challenge yourself. I keep it to myself. I don't need to broadcast it. I let my play do my talking."

You might say it's been a quiet season.

The so-called "Playmaker" hasn't made nearly as many plays as the Bills had hoped, which is why opposing teams haven't wavered about throwing his way. He has been particularly susceptible to double moves that have gone for deep passes.

Denver receiver Rod Smith had a season-high 137 yards and a touchdown last week, most of which came when he was lined up against Clements in the first half. Miami's Chris Chambers had a career-high 238 yards and a score against the Bills. San Diego's Keenan McCardell smoked Clements for a TD. Oakland's Randy Moss beat him for another.

It's hardly the work of a lockdown corner.

Johnson has 84 catches for 1,260 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Wednesday, he was named to his third straight Pro Bowl. He has six catches of 40 or more yards this season, and has 66 catches for first downs. He appears to be Clements' last big test with the lowly New York Jets awaiting Buffalo in the season finale.

"There's no question he's going to be at the top (during free agency)," Bills safety Troy Vincent said. "He's in very, very good shape. When you're 4-10, not much good is going to be said about any of us. He'll be fine. He'll be the No. 1 corner on the market."

Clements has about 15 million reasons to play well.

The five-year veteran could receive a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $15 million if he's allowed to shop himself on the open market. The Bills could put the franchise tag on him for one year. The price in 2005 was $8.8 million for cornerbacks, whose salaries have skyrocketed over the past two offseasons.

"I'm aware of the situation," Clements said. "I'm aware that my contract could be up. Right now I'm focused on this game and competing with these guys over the weekend. I started my career here. I would love to be back here, but I don't run the front office."

Questions persist about who will lead the front office, which makes Clements' situation even more unstable. The futures of President and General Manager Tom Donahoe and coach Mike Mularkey are uncertain.

Clements insisted he wasn't worried about the future and instead was looking for two strong performances to end the season. He will have that opportunity. Like the playmaker he'll be facing today, the Playmaker could solidify his reputation by getting back to his old self.

"I have all the confidence in my ability," Clements said. "I know I'm a good player. I pretty sure other teams out there feel the same way."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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