Bengals freeze Jags

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NFL observers thought it would be a cold day in Cincinnati before these Bengals would score 10 points in the last 75 seconds and win a game as time ran out.

How cold was it Sunday?

Cold enough for the Bengals to parlay Jacksonville's missed field goal, a personal foul, a fumbled kickoff, and 90 yards from Bengals rookie receiver Danny Farmer in the final 3:43 of a game as wild as the wind that whipped that through Paul Brown Stadium at a minus 20-degree wind chill.

How cold was it?

Cold enough for rookie Neil Rackers to kick a 27-yard field goal as time ran out to give the Bengals a 17-14 victory some players hope warms the hearts of the fans enough to bring back coach Dick LeBeau next season.

"This game today was for Coach LeBeau and the coaching staff," said right tackle Wille Anderson, who played despite a sprained knee. "There's no doubt about that. Everybody was tight this week. Players were tight. Coaches were tight. We all knew the implication of this game.

"You had guys playing hurt and doing whatever so (Bengals President) Mike Brown can help persuade the fans about (not) bringing in a new coach."

Brown won't say what his call is going to be yet. But it was a historic day anyway on the river as the Bengals and Jaguars flailed at each other on a frozen, treacherous snow-covered field that curdled into mud.

The cold was second only to the infamous "Freezer Bowl," on Jan. 10, 1982 when the Bengals won the AFC title in minus-9 degrees with a minus-59 degree wind chill.

But things got hot when Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell scrambled 12 yards for a touchdown with 75 seconds left to tie the game, 14-14, and cap a drive in which Farmer caught three balls for 79 yards on his way to the first 100-yard day by a Cincinnati receiver this season.

On the ensuing kickoff, Bengals safety Tremain Mack forced a fumble at the Jaguars 34 when he stripped Shyrone Stith and Canute Curtis recovered.

Then when Jags linebacker Kevin Hardy took a shot at tight end Marco Battaglia after a play to draw a 15-yard penalty, the Bengals were at the Jags 12 and had 51 seconds to line up the first game-winning attempt of Rackers' career.

But it was a long, strange journey in which the Bengals had four turnovers, three calls reversed by instant replay against them, and didn't recover one of the game's six fumbles until the last one.

"We didn't get any calls, we didn't get any bounces. Everything was going against us," Mitchell said. "A lot of teams would have packed it in and said 'it's too cold to play,' and give up. This team might have at one time. Not now. Instead of finding a way to lose, we found a way to win."

Several times it looked like they were finding ways to go to 3-12 instead of 4-11 against the 7-8 Jags.

Minutes after tying the game with an electrifying 82-yard punt return, Bengals rookie Peter Warrick fumbled a punt at his own 11 and Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor scored on a five-yard touchdown run three plays later to give the Jaguars a 14-7 lead with 4:57 left in the third quarter.

It was the kind of day everyone knew one mistake could ice it and the Bengals made four in the game's first 41 minutes with four turnovers.

The punting game was huge in Sunday's ugly conditions. Trailing 14-7 in the first minute of the fourth quarter, the Bengals thought they had the ball on the Jaguars 30 after linebacker Billy Granville recovered Reggie Barlow's fumbled punt.

But the Bengals were called for not having enough men on the line of scrimmage and had to punt again.

Early in the third quarter, Warrick warmed up a brave crowd of about 25,000 souls (50,469 tickets were sold) when he skated 82 yards for a touchdown off a punt that tied the game at 7 early in the third quarter.

Warrick juked right, juked left, and juked right again in running about 182 yards on the Bengals' first touchdown off a kick or punt this season.

It was an improbable play on an improbable day.

Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon made two of the mistakes with two fumbles and Jacksonville took the opening and a 7-0 lead at half-time that looked as big as 77-0 given the conditions.

Dillon lost his second fumble of the game at his own 33 with 1:54 left in the half and the Jaguars took five plays to score.

On third-and-goal, Jags wide receiver Jimmy Smith cut in front of rookie cornerback Mark Roman on a corner route for a three-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mark Brunell with 27 seconds left in the half.

The Bengals' best shot at scoring came when the usually sure-fingered Dillon ripped off a 12-yard gain to the Jacksonville 34. But Jags defensive end Tony Brackens forced a fumble with a strip of Dillon from behind. Dillon had only two fumbles all season coming into the game.

Dillon started better than the Jags' fellow 1,000-yard rusher, Fred Taylor, on the slippery surface. Dillon had 52 yards on his first seven carries, 25 of them coming when he reversed field on the first play of the game. He finished with 76 yards and had only 17 carries because the Bengals had the ball for eight minutes in the second half.

But after Taylor finished the first quarter with just 22 yards on six carries, he secured his ninth straight 100-yard game in racking up 110 that took him 32 carries.

It was tough sledding, but Brunell looked like he was playing in August with 19 of 28 passing for 170 yards.

Mitchell struggled all day, hitting 10 of 22 passes for 171 yards, and coming up short on a few passes. He underthrew Warrick late in the third quarter to get intercepted by Jags safety Mike Logan.

Earlier in the week, Taylor ripped the Paul Brown Stadium grass, calling it "a dirt bike track." But he got a skating rink instead, thanks to a massive dip in temperatures and Sunday morning snow showers.

The only lines visible on the white field were painted orange on the goal lines, end lines and sidelines.

Bill Connelly, Bengals business manager, said the club didn't cover the field with a tarpaulin Friday because the paint on the field had yet to dry.

During Saturday's all-day rain, the Bengals and referee Jeff Triplette agreed a tarp wouldn't help and kept it uncovered. Plus, there was fear more damage would be caused when the weather froze and the tarp had to be dug out of the field

The drop in temperature came overnight. Connelly said the field's heating system didn't adjust to such a huge drop and didn't generate enough power to melt the snow.

Last week had to seem like last year for Jacksonville. They rolled over Arizona, 44-10, last Sunday in 61-degree weather at home.

The closest thing to "Freezer Bowl," conditions came when the Bengals beat the Bears, 16-10, five years and a week ago on Dec. 10, 1995. Quarterback Jeff Blake threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Darnay Scott and Doug Pelfrey kicked three field goals.

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