Bengals cling to lead

12-8-02, 3:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ The Bengals began the game unable to get out of the shadow of their own goal line here Sunday, but rebounded to take a 17-16 half-time lead during a bizarre first half at Ericsson Stadium.

But the 1-11 Bengals found their toughest foe to be themselves instead of the 4-8 Panthers.

The Bengals jumped to a 7-0 edge on wide receiver Peter Warrick's 37-yard touchdown catch in their most efficient 2:14 of the season. But the following 15 minutes were filled with so many shocking mistakes that the Panthers took a 16-7 lead in the first two minutes of the second quarter without scoring an offensive touchdown.

The deluge was capped by rookie punter Travis Dorsch's first NFL punt from scrimmage getting returned for a 61-yard touchdown by wide receiver Steve Smith, the second punt returned against the Bengals this season.

Yet the Bengals rode quarterback Jon Kitna back into the land of living. He hit Warrick on a crossing route over the middle for a four-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 16-14 with 8:18 left in the half, marking the first time in Warrick's 45 NFL games he has had more than one touchdown.

But he had to leave the game with a chest bruise early in the second half and his return was questionable.

Kitna finished the half on 15 of 21 passing for 179 yards, and no interceptions against the NFL's sixth-best defense. He closed the half with a 14-play, 73-yard drive that produced Neil Rackers' 24-yard field goal with 45 seconds left.

Bengals running back Corey Dillon, who had 54 yards on 15

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