Bengals hold off Pats, 23-17

9-9-01, 4:10 P.M.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The sun came out at Paul Brown Stadium at the start of Sunday's NFL opener.

And the Bengals' 2001 blueprint stayed in the clouds until late in the first half. But it was enough for Cincinnati to rip off 20 straight points and a 23-17 win when the defense fended off Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe's bid in the two-minute drill.

The crowd of 51,521 heaved a sigh of relief when Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross wrapped up Bledsoe as he tried to get off a 4rth-and-17 pass with 1:20 left in the game.

The Bengals couldn't put the game away with their running game when Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon lost 10 yards on his last five carries. But he finished with 104 yards on 24 carries, making the Bengals 11-8 when he rushes for 100 yards or more.

The Patriots drove 94 yards in less than four minutes to cut the score to 23-17 with 5:29 left on Bledsoe's eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Wiggins.

After Dillon pounded the Pats for 86 yards in the first half, the Bengals stretched the field in the third quarter with big passes to wide receiver Darnay Scott, a sweep by wide receiver Peter Warrick, and a 25-yard touchdown catch by tight end Tony McGee with six seconds left in the third quarter.

Dillon had 108 yards on his first 20 carries and quarterback Jon Kitna began to heat up in his Bengals debut in finishing his first three quarters on 14 of 21 passing for 178 yards.

Scott, playing his first game in the new stadium, picked up 104 yards on his first five catches. He stretched out for a 34-yard bomb early in the third quarter to set up Neil Rackers' career-best 47-yard field goal that broke a 10-10 half-time tie.

On the next series, Warrick wriggled for 13 yards on a sweep before Kitna found Scott on third-and-10. Scott found a hole in front of free safety Tebucky Jones and behind cornerback Terrell Buckley for a 24-yard play that set up Rackers' 33-yard field goal to give the Bengals a 16-10 lead with 6:01 left in third quarter.

With the Bengals not allowing the Patriots a first down in the third quarter,

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Dillon kept pounding. He followed fullback Lorenzo Neal's block, veered to the right, and picked up 18 yards.

Then Kitna found McGee wide open over the middle for a 25-yard touchdown to make it 23-10.

Late in the first half, Dillon broke a draw play for a 40-yard run when he blew past blitzing Patriots strong safety Lawyer Milloy, and then moments later he ran in untouched up the middle from the Pats' 5 with 2:16 left for a touchdown that forged the tie.

The Bengals short-circuited Bledsoe's try at the two-minute drill when linebacker Ardian Ross picked up their third sack of the day.

But the problems that hounded the Bengals last season led to Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe's 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Troy Brown on the first play of the second quarter to put the Bengals in a 7-0 hole.

Bengals kick returner Curtis Keaton responded on the ensuing kickoff with a 64-yard return that began on the left sideline and ended up on the right sideline.

But some Patriot blitzes hurried Kitna and the Bengals had to settle for Neil Rackers' 36-yard field goal with about 11 minutes left in the half.

With the Bengals driving in the middle of the first quarter at the Patriots 24 (thanks to wide receiver Darnay Scott's 19-yard run-and-catch), the ball slipped out of Kitna's hand as he went to pass and turned the ball over.

It was a familiar sight for the Bengals, who led the NFL in pre-season fumbles. Quarterback Akili Smith had 14 fumbles last season.

The Patriots then embarked on an 11-play touchdown drive in which Cincinnati gave up first downs on two long third downs, the downfall of last year's defense.

Bledsoe scrambled for one on third-and-eight and then he found wide receiver Bert Emanuel on a third-and-15 for a 16-yard gain in front of cornerback Tom Carter.

Bledsoe then hooked up with Brown in a seam between safeties Chris Carter, Cory Hall and Rodney Heath.

The Bengals aimed to run at a New England defense forced to scrub two key defensive starters in rookie tackle Richard Seymour, the club's first-round pick, and middle linebacker Ted Johnson, the Plus, sackmaster Willie McGinest, coming off off-season back surgery, didn't start at right end.

Rookie free agent Jace Sayler out of Michigan State got the start in place of Seymour and 11-year veteran Bryan Cox got the call for Johnson.

But the Patriots bleak running game showed life with people named Antowain Smith, Marc Edwards and J.R.Redmond chewing up 28 yards in a drive that ended in Adam Vinatieri's 39-yard field goal.

The Bengals got a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down in the hours before the game.

With wide receiver Danny Farmer's hyperextended knee still not 100 percent, the Bengals opted to dress just four receivers.

After watching quarterback Scott Mitchell work on his injured ankle in Saturday's walk through, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau felt he was healthy enough to make the third quarterback behind Kitna and No. 2 Akili Smith.

Mitchell severely sprained his ankle in the Bengals' next-to-last play of the preseason in the Aug. 30 loss to the Colts. At first they feared Mitchell would be out six weeks, but he rebounded from an injury for the second straight year.

It was against these Patriots last year that Mitchell suffered a severe knee sprain on the Bengals' last drive of a 16-13 loss in New England and was thought to be gone for a good chunk of the season.

But Mitchell rested a week and returned to lead the Bengals to a 2-2 finish.

With Mitchell healthy, the Bengals deactivated quarterback Scott Covington Sunday for the game, as well as Farmer, running back Rudi Johnson, offensive linemen Jamain Stephens and Victor Leyva, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and defensive lineman Mario Monds.

The idea of activating rookie defensive end Justin Smith less than 24 hours after he signed his contract didn't get much play in the Bengals' front office. The thought of exposing their $11.85 Million Man to injury after not wearing pads for nearly a year wasn't an attractive worst-case scenario.

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