10-28-01, 4:15 p.m. Updated:
10-28, 10:35 p.m.
PONTIAC, Mich. _ Running back Corey Dillon began it all with the longest play in Bengals' history on a 96-yard touchdown bolt on the game's first snap.
But Sunday's 31-27 victory here in the Silverdome against the Lions was no sprint and quickly turned into a grueling, step-by-step marathon that wasn't over until Cincinnati's undermanned cornerbacks, which included former Lion Bo Jennings, stood up to Detroit quarterback Charlie Batch in the final quarter. That's when the harried Batch completed just four of 12 passes, which included a showdown in the final 42 seconds.
Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, the former Lions' Pro Bowl cornerback, saluted his team's first fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season in his first regular-season game against his old team as a head coach.
"I had the privilege of playing corner in this league for 14 years and they say corner is the loneliest position and it is," LeBeau said. "But that was the loneliest, longest 60 minutes I've ever been through. . .It was a heck of a game."
The Bengals broke one of the NFL's most sacred rules when they let a winless team hang around, but they won a game everyone called a "must," to go 4-3 for the first time since 1990.
The Bengals made the playoffs for the last time that season. Sunday's win, their first on the road this year and just the second in head coach Dick LeBeau's 20-game stint, allows them to keep talking playoffs this season.
"We needed this one badly," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "We've got a coach here that's talking playoffs, and we had to win it to stay alive."
The Bengals head into this week's bye with their first above .500 September-October since that last playoff team and their psyche quartertback Jon Kitna knows is "fragile," is intact.
"(If the Bengals lost) their little buddies. . .want to tell them, 'You're not getting the ball enough,' or 'What are they doing with you?' and all you hear is negative," said Kitna after his 204-yard day raises the Bengals' record to 3-1 when he throws for 200 yards.
"Now you're 4-3 and guys feel good about themselves," Kitna said. "Go home for a weekend, it will be enjoyable and guys will come back ready to work instead of having a negative mind."
If the locker room agreed it was a must win, it also agreed it was a come-from-behind win in the fourth quarter that probably would have been a loss in the pre-LeBeau days. They figured they wouldn't have been able to handle the Charlie Brown cloud that hung over them most of the day.
But they survived Pro Bowl kick returner Desmond Howard's career day of 229 yards. They fought through two interceptions and a missed field goal. They gritted their teeth through a touchdown-negating holding call on right tackle Willie Anderson and Darryl Williams' illegal block that wiped out Peter Warrick's 40-yard punt return that put the ball on the Detroit 13.
"We would have faltered," Anderson said.
"You're right, we probably couldn't have dealt with that stuff," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes after he led all tacklers with 10 and contributed a sack. "But it wasn't because we didn't have the talent. We didn't have the mindset. It's the mindset, Dog."
The Bengals were of the mind to seize the game with their second 13-play touchdown drive of the game, which LeBeau called the capstone of the offense's best day of the year. The clutch drive that chewed 7:28 off the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth quarter ended when Dillon gave the Bengals the lead back for good at 31-27 with 8:06 left in the game when he scored on the second effort of a one-yard touchdown run for his third touchdown of the day.
"To me, the turning point was right before that drive," Spikes said. "When we were jogging off the field after they jumped ahead of us, the offense was telling us, 'Don't
worry about it. We're going to put it in y'all's hands. We're going to score and you're going to come back out and stop them.'"
With about two minutes left in the game, Detroit faced a third-and-28 after Lions tackle Aaron Gibson was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty on end Reinard Wilson. Batch threw his second interception of the game in the face of cornerback Artrell Hawkins'; blitz. Free safety Darryl Williams gathered in a tipped pass and lugged it to the Detroit 34 after it bounced off the hands of receiver Johnnie Morton.
But Dillon, who finished with 184 yards on 27 carries, got stuffed on a fourth-and-1 at the Detroit 5 with 42 seconds left and Batch had one shot left.
LeBeau said he opted not to try a field goal because he thought the Bengals had a good chance of converting, and, if not, he didn't mind forcing the Lions to go 95 yards with no timeouts left.
Bengals rookie defensive end Justin Smith helped make it all moot when Batch got the ball back. Smith forced a holding call on overwhelmed left tackle Jeff Backus and Jennings fittingly smothered Lions receiver Scottie Anderson on the game's last play at the Lions 45.
"Everybody dreams of that," said the rookie Jennings after his second NFL game. "To make some big plays against your old team."
As he did on that first long drive, Kitna converted a third down with a scramble, this one for seven yards when he needed six to put the ball on the Detroit 5. He also used all his receivers, hitting Peter Warrick and Darnay Scott each for 19-yard gains. Plus, he fired a huge six-yarder to Ron Dugans at the Bengals' 29 on third-and-four to kick-start the drive.
The Lions, trailing 21-6, late in the first half, capped a furious comeback with 34 seconds left in the third quarter when Batch hit running back Lamont Warren on a two-point conversion pass that gave Detroit a 27-24 lead.
Detroit got the go-ahead touchdown when the Bengals had trouble covering tight end David Sloan. The wide-open Sloan caught a 26-yard pass and a few plays later was wide open again for a one-yard touchdown and the first two-touchdown game of his career.
The Bengals had tried to stop the binge when they took a 24-19 lead with 5:08 left in the third on Neil Rackers' 39-yard field goal,
After taking a 21-6 lead with 1:53 left in the first half , the Bengals got burned by two long kick returns by Howard, had an 11-yard touchdown pass to Warrick wiped out early in the third quarter on Anderson's holding call, and then saw Warrick's punt return with 6:40 left in the third quarter get brought back to past midfield from the Detroit 13 with a penalty on Darryl Williams.
Howard's 65-yard return to open the second half (with Jennings pushing him out of bounds to save the touchdown) set up Sloan's first score. That came after Batch floated a 27-yard pass to Morton in front of Hawkins.
Dillon jolted the Bengals into the lead on the game's first snap with the longest play from scrimmage in club history. The lead draw with fullback Lorenzo Neal in front was supposed to go right, but Dillon found traffic in the middle.
He veered left and shot through a gap created by left tackle Richmond Webb's block on end Tracy Scroggins and left guard Matt O'Dwyer's block on highly-regarded rookie tackle Shaun Rogers. But it was Scott who made Cincinnati's first touchdown in the first quarter in 10 games possible when he took out strong safety Ron Rice.
Dillon likes to make his history in bunches. The 96-yarder is the longest run since the first year of the franchise, when Paul Robinson went for 87 yards against the Raiders. And it also moved Dillon past Pete Johnson into second place on the club's all-time rushing list.
But Cincinnati couldn't put away the Lions in a wild first half.
Howard's career-long 91-yard kick return in the half's last two minutes set up Warren's one-yard touchdown run with 21 seconds left to cut the Bengals lead to 21-13.
Just moments before, on the first play after the two-minute warning, the Bengals capped their biggest first-half scoring binge in two years when Scott caught a 30-yard touchdown pass to give Cincinnati a 21-6 lead.
Lions safety Kurt Schulz, playing his first game of the season, knocked cornerback Todd Lyght off the coverage and Scott outstepped linebacker Barrett Green's tackle at the goal line.
But Howard answered, screeching past Jennings' tackle on the sideline and making a huge cut to the middle that sent JoJuan Armour flying before Cory Hall tripped him up at the nine-yard line.
It was more than a frustrating first half for the Bengals. They outgained Detroit, 228-109, got 1.5 sacks each from Simmons and Wilson, got two turnovers, and were still hanging on for dear life.
Dillon gave the Bengals a 14-3 lead with nine minutes left in the first half when he took an eight-yard pass from Kitna on third-and-goal and bulled and stretched for the final two yards and a touchdown. But it was his two-yard juke on third-and-one in which he spun away from a Lion at the line of scrimmage that kept this 13-play drive alive.
Kitna ignited the drive that took 7:24 with a 20-yard scramble on third-and-eight and got 20 more on the next play when he hit Warrick (five catches for 52 yards) over the middle.
But the Bengals kept letting the winless Lions off the hook. On the next series, Kitna threw behind Warrick over the middle and Rice intercepted the rebound at the Bengals 24.
Cincinnati held the Lions to Jason Hanson's 24-yard field goal that made it 14-6 with 3:47 left in the first half.
On third-and-goal, Batch, already sacked three times, overthrew the open Morton working on Hawkins in the end zone.
The Bengals also missed chances to blow it open early when they couldn't get any points after Detroit's first two drives produced turnovers on the Lions' side of the field. Detroit got back into it on Hanson's 51-yard field goal with 1:24 left in the first quarter that made it 7-3.
After Smith's first career interception put the ball on the Detroit 43, Kitna took a 16-yard sack when linebacker Allen Aldridge blew by tight end Tony McGee.
Then after Simmons sacked and stripped Batch for a fumble at the Detroit 22 when Jennings didn't bite on a double move in the secondary, the Bengals went nowhere and Rackers missed his seventh field goal in 13 tries from 47 yards.
The Bengals arrived here looking to end a grinding sojourn in which they lost their last six road games and 11 of the last 12.
In fact, the last time they beat a non-AFC Central foe on the road was here in the Silverdome three years ago.