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11-24-02, 9:35 p.m.


PITTSBURGH _ You hear the whispers now late in every Bengals game.

The buzz isn't if they will lose, but how they will lose. Will it be a train wreck or an overdose?

Will it be a banana peel, like last month against Tennessee when their Pro Bowl running back tripped over their left guard at the Titans 1 with 1:08 left?

Will it be a chain reaction Beechmont Avenue special pileup, like last week against Cleveland, when four foulups in the final 10 minutes (an interference penalty, a fumbled punt, two no gains from the Browns 1) cost them a chance to tie a 27-20 game?

Or will they lose it like they did Sunday here at Heinz Field? When they waited to make the game's only turnover while they were protecting a 21-20 lead with 6:20 left in the game? For the second straight week, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh fumbled a fourth-quarter punt, This time it was at his own 28 after he ran with it. Last week, it was at the Browns 42 when he dropped it out of the sky with 3:53 left.

Sunday's miscue led to nine Steeler points, the 10th Bengals' loss in 11 games this season, and limitless angst for a team that had just taken the lead and then stuffed the Steelers on a stirring defensive three-and-out.

"We felt like we were going to turn the table, we had the momentum for the time and the punt killed a lot of our momentum," said linebacker Takeo Spikes, who forced the punt by dropping running back Amos Zereoue for a five-yard loss when he blew up a swing pass.

Houshmandzadeh, a second-year wide receiver who has been returning punts since Peter Warrick dropped one inside the Bengals 5 two months ago, has become almost symbolic of his team. So much potential, but he knows his mind isn't right.

"I'm back there just hoping to catch the punt and I can't believe I think like that," Houshmandzadeh said. "The way I'm playing is not the

way that I think I should play and it's not the way I need to play to help this team win. It's not thinking negatively, it's I'm thinking, 'OK, don't drop the punt.' I never think like that."

It was such a simple, but important play. Linebacker Clark Haggans got his helmet on the ball when it appeared Houshmandzadeh might have been trying to transfer hands.

"I saw a guy to my left and a guy to my right. I was trying to split them, and I didn't really cover up the ball," Houshmandzadeh said. "He just hit me and it came out."

With kick returner Brandon Bennett on the bench with a hyperextended knee, Houshmandzadeh gathered himself long enough to nearly go from goat to hero when he gave the Bengals life with a 44-yard return that grew to 61 when kicker Jeff Reed pulled him down by the face mask with 2:45 left in the game.

But that gave him little solace.

"I didn't even get excited for that, man, because I think that's my problem,:" Houshmandzadeh said. "I keep thinking about what I didn't do."

Quarterback Jon Kitna hopes Houshmandzadeh rebounds the way his fellow Oregon State receiver rebounded from the Colts' game. Since Chad Johnson dropped a fourth-down pass on the tying drive back on Oct. 6, he has caught either six passes, or 100 yards, or a touchdown in every game,, and Sunday he went off for a career-high 152 yards on seven catches.

"You have to come back with a single-mindedness not to let it happen again," Kitna said. "You play16 games and you might have four or five games that don't (get decided) in the fourth quarter. The good teams in this league expect to make the plays that are necessary in the fourth quarter and we're just not doing them. We haven't all year."

Which is as good a reason as any why they are the NFL's worst team at 1-10 Sunday night. It's the first time they've been 1-10 since they won three straight in 1999 to go to 4-10 before finishing 4-12. They were 1-11 in '91 before finishing 3-13 and were 1-12 before finishing 3-13 in '93. Sunday's game also secured their ninth season with double-digit losses since '91.

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