BY GEOFF HOBSON
FOXBORO, Mass _ One play. Any time. Anyone. Any position.
The Patriots made the one play here Sunday here at Foxboro Stadium when they beat the Bengals on Adam Vinatieri's 22-yard field goal, 16-13, with three seconds left.
"We couldn't finish it off," said Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson. "That's what is sickening right now. We worked so hard to get to this point, then. .it's missing a block, or throwing the ball or catching it, or defending the ball on the DBs' part. It's sickening. We got so many guys working so hard and then one or two guys screw every damn thing up. That's the part that's killing everybody around here."
To compound the agony, quarterback Scott Mitchell probably won't be able to play next week with damaged knee cartilage against the Steelers after he gave the Bengals their first 200-yard passing day since Opening Day and first touchdown pass since Oct. 1.
Plus, the Bengals had to leave left tackle Rod Jones at Massachusetts General Hospital Sunday night for tests after denying he had a heart attack. Jones felt better and was resting comfortably about an hour after complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath following the Bengals' last offensive play of the game.
The play? It was the struggling Patriots (3-8) making the play when Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe hit wide receiver Troy Brown on a 23-yard pass with 1:18 left in the game on third-and-14 to put the ball on the Bengals 35.
The struggling Bengals, now 2-9? They keep struggling because they didn't make the play and you can pick one:
Kicker Neil Rackers' 30-yard field goal attempt banging off the left upright in the third quarter?
Brown working himself free from nickel cornerback Artrell Hawkins for the big play on a day he caught four of his eight balls on third down for 61 yards?
Bengals right guard Mike Goff called for holding on the Bengals' first series of the fourth quarter in a 13-13 game, wiping out running back Corey Dillon's longest run of the game at 10 yards?
Bengals rookie receiver Peter Warrick killing the next series when he turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-6 with a false start?
"They kept making those catches and getting past the sticks one or two yards," said Bengals inside linebacker Takeo Spikes. "That's where we have to grow up and be mature enough and say, 'Hey man, we need to make one play. Make one turnover. Grab the ball on third down.'"
The Bengals didn't grow any in the Patriots' last drive, but they thought Bledsoe had plenty of hope as his mangled right thumb turned green in steering his club 81 yards on 12 plays to the Bengals 1 in all but the final 3:08 to set up the field goal.
Hawkins claimed Brown pushed off him and fellow cornerback Rodney Heath said he didn't interfere with Patriots receiver Terry Glenn in the end zone with 35 seconds left, but it was called.
"He turned me around. That's how bad I got pushed," Hawkins said. "And Rod didn't look like he had too much contact. He was looking for the ball. He had position."
But Hawkins knows what happens in a close NFL game. Even if you think you're the better team.
"The home-field advantage," Hawkins said. "This team was very beatable. Real beatable. Down the stretch, we didn't make plays."
Spikes was convinced the Bengals defense, which held the Patriots to 1.8 yards per their 22 rushes and to 38 percent (5-for-13) on third down, got some bad calls.
"I trust what my guys said," Spikes said. "Hawkins said the guy pushed off. I don't care how bad people may say our DBs cover, but I've never seen Artrell off a wide receiver that much and I know he had to get pushed off."
But it came down to Bledsoe's chemistry with his wide receivers as he took some aim at left cornerback Robert Bean in his first NFL start.
The Pats came into the game allowing the third most sacks in the league, but the Bengals could only get to Bledsoe once as he connected for all but 19 of his 258 passing yards to Glenn and Brown.
I think we'll look at this game and probably see we didn't blitz as much as we needed to," Spikes said. "But at the end of the game, if you think about it, they didn't really do too much to hurt us."
The Bengals were in this game because of the rejuvenated passing game in Mitchell's first Cincinnati start.
Mitchell hit 20 of 38 passes for 236 yards, the Bengals' first 200-yard passing day since the Sept. 10 opener. But he left the game with an injured left knee when he got hit on the Bengals' last offensive play with 3:23 left on a defensive line twist up the middle.
"We ran well, we passed well, we pass protected well," Anderson said of a line that allowed Mitchell to get sacked just once. "The receivers came up big time. But the defense (couldn't make a play) on the last drive and our offense had a chance, but we didn't pick some blitzes up the middle."
The Bengals also couldn't unleash Dillon in the fourth quarter as he finished with 79 yards on 28 carries, his lowest total when he has carried so many times in a game. His last three carries netted no yards, with two of them going for nothing and a loss of three. P>**
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Mitchell's only mistake of the day hurt. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy's interception came when he stepped in front of wide receiver Craig Yeast at the Cincinnati 29 in the middle of the third quarter. That set up New England's game-tying field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Bean had an up and down day as the Pats earmarked him early and often. With Bean playing off Glenn, Glenn grabbed many of his 11 balls for 129 yards.
But on the Pats' first possession of the second half, Bean got his first career interception when he went in the air with Patriots wide receiver Tony Simmons. He swiped it off Simmons' chest before he hit the ground at the Bengals 49.
Moments later, Rackers hit a career-high 45-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 13-10 lead with 6:42 left in the third quarter.
Mitchell's 13-yard pass to Warrick with six minutes left in the first half broke the Bengals' drought of 28 straight quarters without a touchdown pass and pulled the Bengals into a 7-7 tie.
Mitchell put together another solid drive on the opening drive of the second half. The Bengals got 15 yards on a double reverse handoff from Warrick to Yeast, and Mitchell converted a third-and-7 on an 11-yard scramble.
But Rackers hit the left upright on a 30-yard field-goal attempt.
It was the second loss for the Bengals in that drive. Left guard Matt O'Dwyer ended his season with a broken left ankle. Center Rich Braham moved to O'Dwyer's spot and Brock Gutierrez went to center.
After Vinatieri's 38-yard field goal gave New England a 10-7 lead, Mitchell's crisp 1:54 drill at the end of the second quarter got the Bengals a Rackers' 28-yard field goal at the half-time gun. Mitchell hit four of 10 passes for 42 yards in the march from the Bengals 34 to the New England 10.
Mitchell's 12 of 20 passing for 144 yards in the first half gave the Bengals their most passing yards in a game since they had 159 against the Dolphins Oct. 1.
Midway through the second quarter, Mitchell, in place of Akili Smith, waved Warrick past cornerback Ty Law into the end zone's right corner and Mitchell floated it up before Law turned his head back to the play. It was Warrick's second touchdown catch of the season and his first and the team's first since Oct. 1.
Warrick, having his best day since getting 75 yards in the second game of the season, also caught an 18-yard pass in the 11-play touchdown drive on his way to a season-high seven catches for 79 yards.
Mitchell hit three of his three passes for 41 of the drive's 79 yards with Dillon and reserve running back Brandon Bennett doing the rest. Dillon had 47 yards on 13 carries in the first half.
But their problems in the secondary continued. Brown beat Hawkins to convert a third-and-11 and set up Vinatieri's 38-yard field goal that gave the Pats a 10-7 lead.
A turnover put the Bengals into another early hole on the road.
Moments after Milloy stripped Bennett of the ball to set up the Patriots at the Cincinnati 29, New England took a 7-0 lead with 1:57 left in the first quarter on running back Tony Carter's first touchdown of his career from one yard out.
The Bengals forced Bledsoe into a third-and-three on that drive, but Hawkins let Brown get inside him on a pass in the middle and then missed the tackle as Brown wriggled to the Cincinnati 8.
The Bengals got a break when the Patriots didn't play their top two running backs and turned to seventh-round pick Patrick Pass. But Pass picked up 33 yards on his first six carries.
Mitchell's first pass of the game turned into the Bengals' first completion to a wide receiver of at least 20 yards since Oct. 15. It came off a play-action fake to Dillon and gained 20 yards when Yeast came back for the ball on the right sideline.