10-27-02, 6:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Running backs Corey Dillon and Eddie George waged a heavyweight battle Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium while their teams went toe-to-toe with a flurry of scoring binges that ended tangled in controversy and legs.
George finished with 106 yards on 21 carries. Dillon had 138 yards on 30 carries, but it was the controversial last yard he couldn't get on fourth-and-one from the Titans 1 with 1:08 left in the game that gave Tennessee a 30-24 victory.
Dillon tripped over pulling left guard Matt O'Dwyer and couldn't get through the open hole on the right side. Dillon had to stretch for the goal line and the refs said he was short, and then held up the call after looking at television replays in ending a 14-play, 67-yard bid.
Dillon thought he was in. Head coach Dick LeBeau thought he was in. Fullback Lorenzo Neal, left tackle Levi Jones, right tackle Willie Anderson, quarterback Jon Kitna, and everyone else who got down in a stance on the goal line for the Bengals thought he was in because they thought the replay showed a Titan never touched him before he nosed it over the goal line.
"If they had ruled it in," LeBeau said, "they would not have reversed that, either."
"It's not like college," Neal said. "You can crawl in there if they don't touch you. Your knee is down, but they have to touch you."
Now they think the national joke image is working against them on other areas besides public relations.
"They're not going to give us any call," Dillon said. "They would never give us a call. A game situation, too? They aren't going to give us that."
Jones, the rookie, shook his head.
"(The officials) watch ESPN just like we do," Jones said. "They hear all those guys trashing us. I'm telling you like this (the Bengals' image) isn't going to help the situation."
Bengals President Mike Brown wouldn't give an opinion, except that he felt Dillon would have walked into the end zone if he didn't get tangled up.
"Who knows?" asked Brown, a staunch foe of instant replay. " (The referees) didn't have a good, clean shot. Whether he quite got there or not, only the referees know. The call went the way it did. It's over and that's the end of it."
With his team 0-7 for the first time since the Dave Shula Era as they head to Houston next week, where the expansion Texans have a chance of being favorites for the first time in their history, LeBeau virtually assured a win.
"We had every opportunity to win, and next week we will win," LeBeau said. Asked about it later, he said, "I believe this team is going to win next week."
Wide receiver Chad Johnson, off a career-high 86-yard day, backed him up.
"We're going to come back next week and I assure you a win," Johnson said. "Guarantee we win next week."
If O'Dwyer didn't try to get back up to his feet after stumbling, the Bengals might have already had that first win. How big was the hole?
"I could have took my wife and daughter through there," Dillon said. "I would have walked in. Walked in. Walked in. It's just that simple. The hole was fat."
With the Bengals needing a full yard, the coaches figured they couldn't get it going straight ahead, so they went wide of Anderson at right tackle. Kitna said O'Dwyer "clipped the heel of my foot," as he handed off to Dillon.
"I'm not sure what happened, I'd
like to see it on tape," O'Dwyer said. "If it's me, I'll take all the responsibility. Yeah (his feet gave out), whatever. I don't know what to tell you."
Dillon: "It wasn't like they blew anybody back and they stood me up at the line. I had to deal with some situations trying to get over that damn goal line. I thought I was in. I can't help it. What do you want me to do. I did the best I could. It wasn't like I was one-on-one with somebody and I had to beat them. The play was messed up before it even got started. . .If you want to blame me for that one, I'll take it. I'll take the responsibility."
The Titans, of course, saw it the other way.
"I was the one on top of him," said free safety Lance Schulters. "I thought he landed on the ground and tried to bounce forward. I was on top of him by then, so the referee made the right call."
In a game of inches, the Bengals got beat by a mile. With 55 seconds left, the Bengals were poised to force the Titans to punt on third-and-three from their 8, but defensive tackle Oliver Gibson was called for encroachment and the game was over.
"I was trying to time it up," Gibson said. "They were going to run the clock or take the long safety. I looked to the sideline. I was looking for the guard and center. The center dropped his hips, and he got me. Got me dead to rights."
In the end, George's cornermen of quarterback Steve McNair and wide receiver Derrick Mason overpowered the Bengals to erase a 24-20 fourth-quarter deficit.
McNair threw three touchdowns in the second half, the last to Mason from 16 yards with about 10 minutes left in the game to give the Titans a 27-24 lead. Then Brandon Bennett's fumble on the ensuing kickoff set up Tennessee's last score, a 46-yard field goal by Joe Nedney with 8:04 left.
Mason finished with seven catches for 98 yards and McNair hit 16 of 27 for 215 yards. Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna had two touchdown passes, doubling his season total.
The Bengals responded to the Titans' 20 straight points with 10 of their own to take a 24-20 lead in the first 1:28 of the fourth quarter.
After Dillon ripped off a 31-yard run to set up Neil Rackers' 44-yard field goal, Kitna threw a nine-yard pass for Matt Schobel's first NFL touchdown catch, and the Bengals' first by a tight end since Opening Day of 2001.
McNair got the Titans into the lead by picking on the Bengals' cornerbacks with two touchdown bombs in the first six minutes of the second half.
With starting cornerback Jeff Burris out of the game with a hamstring problem, McNair went after backup Kevin Kaesviharn and sent Mason scooting past him for a 32-yard touchdown play that made it 14-13, Bengals.
Then on the next series, McNair, who came into the game with 17 career TD passes against the Bengals got another one. He hung up a ball to wide receiver Kevin Dyson from 39 yards away, and when cornerback Artrell Hawkins couldn't turn his head in time, Dyson adjusted to the ball to give Tennessee a 20-14 lead with 8:49 left in the third quarter.
The team the Bengals thought they had this season showed up to post a 14-0 lead on the Titans in the first 1:20 of the second quarter and took their first half-time lead in 10 games dating back to last season, 14-6.
The Titans crawled back into the game George trading punches with Dillon. Dillon took the early rounds with 76 yards on 15 carries, but George gashed the Bengals for 69 yards on 12 carries later in the half to give Tennessee two red-zone opportunities.
But the Bengals held Tennessee's NFL-best red-zone offense (the Titans had scored touchdowns 74 percent of the time) to Nedney field goals. The last one came with 1:04 left in the first half after the Bengals stopped a third-and three when the refs pick up a flag on Kaesviharn defending Dyson in the end zone.
Kaesviharn came into the game in the second quarter when Burris re-aggravated a hamstring pull he suffered last week in practice.
Dillon's four-yard touchdown run that gave the Bengals the 14-point lead typified their early aggressive play. It was Dillon's 11th carry of the day for 68 yards and came courtesy of former Titans fullback Lorenzo Neal's assembly-line blocks on middle linebacker Frank Chamberlin (playing for the injured Randall Godfrey) and strong safety Tank Williams. The play capped a 10-play, 89-yard drive that got jump started on Johnson's 24-yard diving catch behind cornerback Andre Dyson on third-and-two from the Bengals 19.
Johnson solidified his role as the Bengals' go-to-guy with 64 yards on his first four catches, and he finished with six catches for a career-high 86 yards. Three came on third down, like the first one that went for 17 yards in front of cornerback Samari Rolle on third-and-three and kept the first touchdown drive alive.
Kitna hit six of his first seven passes in the touchdown drives, but the Bengals' offense cooled for much of the second quarter and he finished 7 of 12 for 84 yards in the half.
The Bengals hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in the first quarter all season, but got one when Kitna pulled a play-action fake and hit Neal on a one-yard touchdown pass.
The Bengals used one of those penalties that has plagued them all season to score that touchdown. And then they pulled off one of those defensive plays that's been missing all year to keep a lead they had for just 2:30 of the previous six games.
How big was a 14-point lead? The Bengals hadn't had one so big in 364 days, or since the 31-27 win in Detroit last Oct. 28 in which they had a 21-6 lead in the second quarter.
Facing a third-and-eight on the game's first drive, the Bengals got a break when the Titans were called for having too many men on the field. Kitna found Johnson for 17 yards and a first down.
Johnson got loose again for a 13-yard catch and Dillon set them up with a 24-yard burst off left tackle that he cut outside when Neal pulled out the artillery and crushed Williams, on a lead block.
George ripped through the Bengals on his first series for 37 yards, but he fumbled at the end of a 12-yard run when Hawkins and rookie strong safety Marquand Manuel combined to jar the ball loose at the Bengals 15, where it was recovered by defensive end Bernard Whittington.
It was just the second fumble the Cincinnati defense has recovered this year.
The Titans took advantage of two 15-yard face-mask penalties on each of their field-goal drives. Linebacker Canute Curtis got the first one on fullback Mike Green, but he came back to pressure Titans quarterback Steve McNair on a third-and-two from the Bengals 15 to force Nedney's field goal from 33 yards.
Then on third-and-four from the Bengals 24, Hawkins had McNair caught on a blitz, but grabbed his facemask in the process.