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Bengals break fast

11-3-02, 3:15 P.M.


HOUSTON _ The playmakers the Bengals have sought for years surfaced here Sunday in the first half when they bolted to a 24-3 half-time lead in their first appearance ever at Reliant Stadium.

Wide receiver Michael Westbrook came leaping off the inactive list for the first time in two weeks and swiped a 26-yard touchdown pass from Houston middle linebacker Jamie Sharper in the end zone and wide receiver Peter Warrick made one of his Florida State plays with a 33-yard touchdown that was more run than catch as the Bengals matched their season-high points total.

Quarterback Jon Kitna played his best half in 19 starts as a Bengal, hitting 13 of 15 passes for 172 yards behind an offensive line that allowed no sacks. Kitna spread the ball around, finding Warrick six times for a season-high 80 yards and tight end Matt Schobel three times for 36 yards to go along with running back Corey Dillon's 36 yards on 11 carries that went a long way in softening the Bengals' bold predictions of victory against the expansion Texans.

Throw in Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins' rescue of a porous Bengals' defense when he stepped in front of a David Carr pass in the Cincinnati end zone and went 102 yards for a touchdown on the last play of the first quarter and it was quite a day for the winless Bengals in a season with no big plays on either side of the ball.

They even got a big play on special teams when strong safety JoJuan Armour blocked Kris Brown's 46-yard field-goal attempt with 2:02 left in the half.

Hawkins tied Louis Breeden's club record for the longest interception return when he stepped in front of wide receiver Corey Bradford in the flat. But he had to survive a challenge by the Texans when he stopped on the 24-yard line and cut back to the middle of the field.

Houston claimed he stepped out of bounds, but a week after losing what they thought was the winning touchdown with 1:08 left because the refs ruled there wasn't inconclusive evidence on the replay, got rewarded this one for the same reason.

It was Carr's first interception in 97 straight throws and spoiled his surgical attack against that Bengals'

secondary in a 3-3 game that produced throws of eight and 13 yards on third down, and a 26-yarder to tight end Billy Miller on rookie strong safety Marquand Manuel.

Miller tortured the Bengals' safeties and linebackers in the first half, making three catches for 44 yards. Late in the half, he induced free safety Cory Hall into the Bengals' third pass interference penalty of the day as the Texans drove for Brown's blocked field-goal attempt.

Carr, who finished the half eight of 15 for 117 yards, converted another third-and-long when wide receiver Jabar Gaffney got inside Hawkins for a 14-yard slant on third-and-seven.

The blocked kick set up the Bengals' microwave 64-yard drive of 1:20 at the end of the half.

Working out of the shotgun, Kitna found Schobel underneath for two catches of 24 yards before finding Warrick over the middle. Warrick made the grab, bounced off free safety Kevin Williams, and then zig-zagged away from cornerback Marcus Coleman for the 33-yard play with 42 seconds left in the half.

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