9-30-01, 6:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
SAN DIEGO _ The Bengals forged a 7-7 halftime lead here with 24 seconds left at Qualcomm Stadium when rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson caught his first NFL touchdown pass with 24 seconds left.
Johnson caught an eight-yard fade pattern over Chargers cornerback Ryan McNeil in the left corner of the end zone as the Bengals capped a drive that was all Corey Dillon.
The drive was set up by another Bengals rookie first when defensive end Justin Smith rung up his first NFL sack when he bolted between left tackle Damon McIntosh and left guard Raleigh Roundtree to nail Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie for a 13-yard loss.
After a shanked punt by the Chargers' Darren Bennett to the San Diego 47, Dillon caught an 11-yard pass and busted a draw for 11 more yards in finishing the half with 46 yards rushing on 10 carries.
The Bengals outgained San Diego in the first half, 139-77, and had the ball for about 18 of the half's 30
minutes. And although Flutie completed seven of 10 passes for 73 yards in the half, the Bengals' defense held San Diego on four of five third downs.
But the Bengals couldn't come up with more than seven points because the air-tight ball security that has marked their 2-0 start faltered when Kitna threw his first two interceptions of the season and killed another drive when he fumbled a handoff.
Flutie made the second interception stand up when he hit wide receiver Curtis Conway for a 19-yard touchdown through a zone defense to give the Chargers a 7-0 lead with 10:43 left in the first half.
Strong safety Cory Hall didn't turn around as Conway caught Flutie's eighth pass of the game. It was Flutie's seventh completion as he racked up some yards against a Bengals' secondary that was playing off Conway and fellow receiver Jeff Graham.
The Chargers only had to go 41 yards for the game's first touchdown, because that's where linebacker Junior Seau caught rookie cornerback Tay Cody's tip. Cody waited and broke up Kitna's sideline pass to receiver Darnay Scott.
Kitna's first interception wasn't his fault. On third-and-eight, he threw a strike to Johnson over the middle for more than a first down, but Johnson let the ball bounce high off his hands and McNeil grabbed his NFL-leading fourth interception to start the Chargers at their own 40.
The Chargers couldn't advantage when Wade Richey missed a 38-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter on a drive that Bengals outside linebacker Steve Foley stalled when he didn't bite on Flutie's play fake and dumped Fred McCrary for a seven-yard loss on a pass.
The Bengals and Chargers, the worst teams in the AFC last year when it came to turnover differential, each got fumbles from their new quarterbacks on the first series. But they did recover.
Kitna hit his first four passes for 37 yards as the Bengals took the opening kickoff 51 yards in 10 plays. The feature play was Johnson's first NFL catch, a leaping 20-yarder that converted a third-and-12.
But Kitna fumbled a handoff to running back Corey Dillon at the Chargers 39 on third-and-three, and punter Nick Harris pinned San Diego on its own six. Flutie then fell on his bobbled snap on third-and-one.
When backup free safety Darryl Williams' foot sprain didn't respond before Sunday's game, the Bengals decided to deactivate him for the first time in his six seasons with the club.
With Williams and backup rookie linebacker Riall Johnson (rib) inactive, the Bengals went into a game with more than four wide receivers for the first time this season. Danny Farmer and rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh celebrated returns to their home of southern California by dressing for the first time in '01.
Houshmandzadeh, a seventh-round pick, hasn't been available since he bruised his foot in the Aug. 10 pre-season game in Detroit. He could be used to spell Peter Warrick on punt returns during a typical sunny, sweltering Mission Valley afternoon that began with temperatures hovering at about 80 degrees.
Farmer could give Scott a blow at the split receiver spot and Johnson can relieve Warrick at flanker in a two-receiver set.
Marcellus Wiley, the Chargers' high-priced off-season acquisition, made his San Diego debut in a start at left defensive end. It's been a little more than three weeks since Wiley broke his foot and had a screw inserted.
The Bengals arrived at Qualcomm Stadium trying to rid themselves of the hex that has hung over them for 11 years. They are trying to go 3-0 and win in California, both for the first time since they went to the 1990 playoffs.
And could the Bengals be a victory away from a "Sports Illustrated," cover? The game between the teams who are each 28-53 since 1996 and are now suddenly 2-0 is the only game SI is staffing this week. NFL writer Mike Silver spent part of Saturday talking to some players before and after their meetings.