Believe it or not, Bengals air out Steelers

12-30-01, 8:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

This win Sunday in Arctic Paul Brown was as improbable as two missed extra points, a recovered on-side kick, and a 400-yard passing day from a Cincinnati quarterback not named Norman Julius Esiason against the NFL's top-ranked defense.

All somehow unfolded in a Ripley's Believe It or Not 26-23 victory that snapped the Bengals' seven-game losing streak and AFC Central champion Steelers' seven-game winning streak in their failed bid to nail down the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Although the Steelers got it 90 minutes later when Oakland lost.

And, oh yes, somewhere in there Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons matched his uniform number for a 56-yard touchdown run off a botched Steeler field goal in the Bengals' elusive fifth win, their most since the 7-9 season of 1997.

"That's a team that plays us hard," said Steelers inside linebacker Joey Porter. "It's not like we looked past them. They came out here and they whooped us. There are no excuses about it. We're not looking for any excuses, but they came out here and whooped us."

After missing an extra point that would have won the game with 37 seconds left in regulation, shell-shocked Bengals kicker Neil Rackers hit a 31-yard field goal with 4:08 left in overtime.

"I told everyone of these guys in here after the game that I thank them for giving me another chance," said Rackers, who said he slipped on the frozen sand that was the middle of the field. "This team didn't deserve to lose the way they kept fighting all day."

Not even Who-Dey himself would have called this script. The Bengals' much-maligned passing game got 411 yards from quarterback Jon Kitna and 100-yard days from receivers Darnay Scott (113) and Peter Warrick (109). Who-Dey thought the league's lowest-rated passer would ring up the first 400-yard passing day against the Steelers in 13 years and the Bengals' first since Boomer Esiason's club-record 490-yard day against the Rams in 1990?

Apparently, not many. Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes noticed right from the start that his stadium seemed to hold more Steelers fans. Especially down the stretch as the black-and-gold towels blanketed the Bengals' orange and black with the game seemingly gone.

"Please fans, don't give up on us," Spikes said. "I know we've given you plenty of heartache and pain. (Seven) losses hurt us too, but we got one for you today."

But Who-Dey would predict how? The Bengals' and the NFL's fourth-worst offense rolled up 544 yards, their most since that Boomer game 11 years ago, against a defense giving up just 244 yards per game.

The only things that followed suit were the Bengals' steady pass protection, which slowed the NFL's second-best sack attack to just two Sunday, and a resurrected defense.

The defense stretched its streak to nine straight games of not allowing a 100-yard rusher against Pittsburgh's top-ranked rush offense.

Trailing 23-10 since the middle of the third quarter, Kitna ended up throwing the third most passes ever in a NFL game with 68 and completed 35. Here's a guy who hadn't thrown a touchdown pass to a wide receiver in 26 quarters. But he threw two them in the final 2:46 to pull the Bengals even.

Who-Dey thought after the quarterback and receivers openly warred after last Sunday's blanking in Baltimore that the Bengals would come within two yards of having three 100-yard receivers when rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh checked in with nine catches for 98 yards?

"If these guys want to play like that," Kitna said, "teams are going to have a hard time. A hard time because our offensive line is real good. Our receivers just made the plays that came their way and kept plugging. We needed something like this so guys can be excited about coming back next year instead of saying, 'I'm still under contract.'"

Kitna's first scoring pass came on a six-yard throw to Ron Dugans on third-and-six. Then, when rookie linebacker Riall Johnson submerged Steeler Bobby Shaw on the ground and blindly grabbed something that turned out to be the ball on the on-side kick, Kitna set up shop at his own 46 with 2:41 left.

(Actually, Shaw said Johnson got the ball only when he thought the refs told him to hand it to them.)

When a chop-block penalty on running back Corey Dillon pushed the ball from the Steeler 3 to the Steeler 18, Kitna threw his ball of the game. In the face of safety Mike Logan's

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blitz, Kitna lofted a bomb into the left corner of the end zone as Farmer got behind cornerback Dewayne Washington. Farmer had enough time to make an adjustment on the ball right over his head as Washington pushed him out-of-bounds.

"I couldn't see it leave his hand," said Farmer of his first NFL touchdown catch. "I knew it was a blitz and we knew when that was happening we would just keep our routes on because we were so close in there. . .he was just going to throw to a corner in the end zone and he threw it up there and it was real high because he got hit and he threw it at the last possible second and floated it up there and it was perfect because I had a lot of time to go get."

Then came Rackers' missed extra point. Then came the Steelers' winning coin flip in OT, followed by another superb defensive stand that was part of the effort forcing Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart to miss seven of his last 10 passes.

Then came the last drive, which started at the Bengals' one-foot line and ended at Rackers' foot. In between, backup running back Brandon Bennett, playing while Dillon sat with a jammed pinky that made handling the ball difficult, ripped off a 36-yarder. Then Kitna found Warrick over the middle for a 13-yarder on third-and-10 to put the ball at the Pittsburgh 26. A dump to Warrick and two Bennett runs and it was Rackers again.

Pittsburgh tried to ice him with a timeout, but Rackers said the extra time helped him find a hard spot on the sandy field.

"It didn't feel as good as it should have," said Rackers of his first OT kick. "I think at that point I was numb to any kind of feeling whatsoever."

Look at the numbers and try to figure out what happened because the 63,751 shivering in the 15-20 degree weather with minus-nine wind chill couldn't. Dillon averaged four yards for his 21 carries that gained 91 yards, the Bengals reeled off a club-record 99 plays, and their 22 passing first downs tied a team record. Kitna, who threw for 393 yards combined in the previous three games, hit 400 for the first time since the '97 World Bowl in NFL Europe.

And yet the Bengals still struggled.

As they have often during this 5-10 season, the Bengals set the bad karma on their first drive of the day. They got no points despite putting the nose of the ball on the Steelers' goal line with a first down and then watched Stewart hit 16 of his first 26 throws for 230 yards and three touchdown passes of at least 28 yards.

But it was hard to fault a defense that hadn't given up more than 20 points since Nov. 11 and hadn't given up more than 16 in the four previous December games. They forced five turnovers, with two of their four interceptions coming from cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn, and they stuffed the NFL's No. 1 rush offense playing without Jerome Bettis on 2.6 yards per carry.

Stewart's fakery led to what looked to be the games's back-breaking play, Steelers running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's 37-yard touchdown on a throw-back screen that gave Pittsburgh a 23-10 lead with 3:41 left in the third quarter.

The drive was set up when Dillon fumbled at the Pittsburgh 47. But he didn't re-aggravate his dislocated right pinky until midway through the fourth quarter, forcing him into a limited role.

The Bengals had a shot to tie it on their first drive of the second half that took 14 plays. But facing a fourth-and-six from the Steelers 23, Kitna short-hopped a throw to a wide-open Warrick.

Dillon kept dealing on the drive as he neared the first 100-yard game against the Steelers since Priest Holmes got them 11 games ago in Kansas City.

On one play, Dillon spun away from Porter and took it outside for a 10-yard gain.

But Porter got his revenge on the first play of the next series and the Bengals sitting with great field position at near midfield. Inside linebacker Earl Holmes knifed into the hole with defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and the ball popped out of Dillon's arm and Porter recovered at the Pittsburgh 47.

The Steelers took a 17-10 half-time lead and the dazed Bengals could only wonder how it wasn't the other way around.

They got their biggest pass play of the season in Scott's 49-yard catch and Dillon had 55 yards against the Steelers' top-ranked rush defense in on 10 carries that included his longest run in two months with a 30-yarder.

The Bengals twice jammed the ball inside the Steelers 9 in the first half and Rackers missed field goals of 32 and 28 yards.

Stewart didn't let the chances go by in his MVP season. He beat the Bengals on two long touchdown passes to wide receiver Plaxico Burress and finished the first half on a seamless 11 of 16 passing for 177 yards that shook the passer rating meter at 145.1

Kitna had his best half since the bye week seven losses ago. He hit on 12 of 24 throws for 170 yards and engineered a one-minute, 48-yard drive at the end of the half that ended in Rackers' 34-yard field goal at the gun.

The big play was Kitna's 14-yard across-the-field out pattern to wide receiver Chad Johnson that converted a third-and-seven with nine seconds left and put the ball on the Pittsburgh 17.

Fittingly, it took the Bengals' defense to score after a month the Bengals' offense has offered just four in four games and none last week. Simmons went 56 yards for a touchdown after Steelers holder Josh Miller fumbled a field-goal snap. Cornerback Robert Bean picked it up and went 10 yards before shoving a lateral to Simmons with just under five minutes left in the half as the Bengals cut the lead to 14-7.

But Stewart, who completed four passes of 20 yards or more, came back and hit a big 20-yarder to Troy Edwards over the middle on third-and-long with two minutes left in the half to set up Kris Brown's 38-yard field goal with a minute left that gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead.

The Bengals' promising start turned into a mess and showed why this season is where it is. On their first drive, they had a first down inside the Steeler 1 and got no points.

In a play that would have been debated and analyzed for who knows how long if the Bengals lost, Kitna got sacked for a four-yard loss on a rollout after a play-action fake to Dillon.

The Bengals had to go for a 23-yard field goal, which Rackers made. But when tight end Kirk McMullen was called for a hold, Rackers shoved the ensuing 32-yarder to the right.

Just when it seemed it couldn't get worse, it did right away. Stewart worked the flea flicker after a handoff, avoided a sack, and then just fired the ball 30 yards in the air to midfield. Only his receiver, Hines Ward, saw it and he came back to the ball in front of Bengals defensive backs Artrell Hawkins, Cory Hall and Kaesviharn for a 30-yard play. Two plays later, Kaesviharn had Burress covered down the right sideline, but he didn't come back to the ball and Burress did. When Kaesviharn and free safety Darryl Williams missed tackles, Burress had a 42-yard touchdown catch and the Steelers had a 7-0 lead in the middle of the first quarter.

Couldn't get worse on the next series? When Kitna underthrew Scott on a quick pass, they faced a fourth-and-one from their own 45. Dillon got stuffed when nose tackle Casey Hampton penetrated into the backfield to set up Holmes' stop.

Three plays later, Stewart hit a wide-open Burress cutting across the middle away from Kaesviharn for a 28-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead 12 minutes into the game.

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