BY GEOFF HOBSON
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ The Bengals got one of those breaks they never seem to get, and then the bad cloud came out of nowhere again.
Doug Pelfrey's 29-yard field goal on the last play of Friday night's pre-season opener got blocked as the Bills' Erik Flowers came roaring up the middle to seal the Bengals' 21-20 loss. That came about two minutes after strong safety Cory Hall recovered a fumble by Bills running back Lennox Gordon at the Buffalo 40 and seconds after Bengals third-string quarterback Scott Covington ran a bootleg keeper for 12 yards to the Bills 16.
"I don't know what happened," Pelfrey said. "I thought I hit it good. I thought it was on time. I thought I made the kick. I came off the field looking at the (scoreboard) and I thought there was pressure from inside, but I don't know. Usually I know when I mishit it or if I hit it low. But it felt fine."
The Bengals made a lot of little plays on offense here at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but the Bills stunned their defense on a batch of big plays that added up to Cincinnati's loss. Look at the stats and the wrong team won.
The Bengals had more first downs, 21-13, more yards, 351-294, more snaps, 78-49, and more clock with nearly 15 more minutes with the ball than Buffalo. And, somehow the Bengals' defense found a way to give up two big plays for touchdowns and still hold the Bills to 2-for-11 on third down.
It's just the kind of game you're supposed to win, which is why outside linebacker Takeo Spikes was fuming even though it's the pre-season.
"I don't feel like talking. These are games we have to win," said Spikes, who along with right tackle Willie Anderson served as captains Friday. "I'd rather we make a lot of mistakes and learn from them and win. But I'm not feeling good right now.
The last bolt came in the first minute of the fourth quarter when backup Bills running back Shawn Bryson broke a screen pass from third-string quarterback Mike Cawley for a 73-yard touchdown through Cincinnati's second-line defense that produced the final score.
The first half ended in similar fashion when wide receiver Avion Black zig-zagged through a mix of the Bengals' first and second defense for a 34-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Alex van Pelt that gave the Bills a 14-10 half-time lead.
But Bengals second-year quarterback Akili Smith offered a poised and competent outing on 12-for-18 passing for 104 yards and no interceptions. The only thing missing was a down-field strike with his biggest pass of the night coming on a tipped pass for 24 yards.
And the Bengals did style a bit when they rolled out their "Cadillac Package," full of big backs and got two one-yard touchown plunges from Nick Williams.
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Williams, a second-year fullback running out of the tailback spot, scored his last one with about six minutes left in the third quarter. After following rookie fullback Ricky Brown into the end zone, the Bengals took a 17-14 lead. Williams' touchdown was set up by backup quarterback Scott Mitchell's 37-yard bomb out of the shotgun down the right sideline to wide receiver Craig Yeast.
A few minutes later, Mitchell hit wide receiver James Hundon on a similar 40-yard pass to the Buffalo 10, and Williams lugged the ball five more yards from tailback to set up rookie Neil Rackers' 20-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 20-14 lead with 1:09 left in the third quarter.
"Yeast stepped up and Hundon did some nice things in Darnay's spot," said coach Bruce Coslet of sidelined flanker Darnay Scott.
The Bengals did everything with the football but autograph it and send it Federal Express here in the first half. Everything but score a touchdown until the final 1:16, when they briefly took a 10-7 lead.
It was a mixed night for the Cincinnati defense. The Bengals opened the game looking befuddled when the Bills went 72 yards on the game's first six plays, the final 32 coming on running back Antowain Smith's shred jobs around the right outside.
But the first defense didn't allow a thing after that to quarterback Rob Johnson's first group. They allowed just six yards on the next two series and got a sack from nose tackle Oliver Gibson in a first half the Bengals outsnapped the Bills, 40-26. Black's big catch and run came with a smattering of starters on the field such as Spikes, free safety Darryl Williams and cornerback Artrell Hawkins.
The Bengals' first offensive line pushed back the Bills' first defensive line, but could only get three points out of it. On their first possession, Pelfrey's 26-yard field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed 7:55 and cut the Bills'lead to 7-3.
True to his highlight film career at Florida State, first-rounder Peter Warrick made the tapes on his first NFL catch. On third-and-six from the Buffalo 48, Smith tried to go to wide receiver Damon Griffin, but it was deflected 24 yards down field where Warrick picked it off the turf.
The Bengals' running game was at its best in the first half when Brandon Bennett was in the game. Bennett carried six times for 28 yards in the drive, but Smith's pass to Warrick in the end zone got tipped at the line by Bills nose tackle Ted Washington.
With five minutes left in the half, the Bengals had a second-and-1 from the Bills' 3-yard line. But running back Sedrick Shaw got stuffed for no gain on three straight dives to short-circuit a 14-play drive that began at the Buffalo 48 on Yeast's 14-yard punt return. The only change in the starting lineup came when Mike Goff replaced Brian DeMarco at right guard.
On the drive that got nothing, Smith personally converted three third downs, one on a quarterback sneak. The Bengals have been preaching "Win The Big Down," this summer, and Smith's offense converted all but six third-down tries in the first half.
The Bengals' defense allowed the Bills just one third-down conversion in the first half and got the ball back for the offense at the two-minute warning.
Running out of the "Cadillac," Williams followed fullback Clif Groce to his left for a one-yard touchdown run that capped a six-play, 56-yard drive that took about 40 seconds. But Smith made the most of it by absorbing a roughing the passer penalty, getting a leaping 18-yard catch from Hundon and finding Yeast over the middle for 11 yards before Shaw broke loose for an 11-yard cut-back run that set up Williams' touchdown.
Bennett finished his night with 33 yards on seven carries while Shaw got 29 on 11. Warrick had one other catch, a seven-yard scoot on a quick underneath route. Williams staked his claim with his two touchdowns, and a seven-yard catch over the middle that converted a third down. Rackers converted his only chance in the first half, an extra point.
Bengals safety Greg Myers left the game in the first half with a right knee sprain.