Updated: 11-3-03, 3:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
TEMPE, Ariz. - The Bengals, favored on the road for the first time in three years, left here Sunday night wondering how they let the chance of a season, not to mention a 4-4 record, slip away into a desert of opportunities.
One of the NFL's worst rushing offenses dropped 161 yards on them while the Bengals surrendered the clock and the line of scrimmage with their worst rushing day in 23 games dating back to last season's opener with 47 yards on a tentative 2.5 yards per carry during a 17-14 loss at Sun Devil Stadium.
Throw in two fumbled kickoffs, two sub-40-yard punts that translated into 10 Arizona points, and three pre-snap penalties against a vulnerable team that mirrored them in every way, and the Bengals knew they had let a very big game in the AFC North get away from them. With Houston and Kansas City waiting for them at Paul Brown Stadium the next two weeks, the 3-5 Bengals fell two games behind the 5-3 Ravens in the North.
"We blew it, man. We blew it," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who blamed his offensive line for failing to generate a running game that put quarterback Jon Kitna in position to throw two interceptions in a scoreless second half that swallowed a 14-10 halftime lead.
Those were Kitna's first two interceptions in 11 quarters and marked his first multi-pick outing in five games on a day he finished 21-of-38 for 218 yards.
"This was a big opportunity for us to be on a legitimate roll in this league," said Kitna after throwing more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time since the second game of the season.
"Three in a row, coming back home for two home games," he said. "We had a good opportunity ahead of us and we let them take it to us today. The next two weeks are very crucial for us and the future of our season. ... We had it all right in front of us. Now it's a cat fight."
Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated he'll stick with Kitna at quarterback and Corey Dillon at running back. Dillon didn't play in the second half after gaining just five yards on seven carries, heightening speculation his groin isn't 100 percent. Lewis said it tightened up on Dillon at halftime and he opted to use Rudi Johnson in the second half. Johnson finished with 34 yards on eight carries, but his last four runs went for just eight yards.
"No, Corey is our best runner and we'll keep playing with him," Lewis said.
Dillon said his groin tightened "somewhat," and said he thought it was best "to let my boy (Johnson) do his thing," but Johnson couldn't duplicate his first 100-yard day from a week ago.
The back who did take over the game, the Cards' Marcel Shipp, had 141 yards on 29 carries to become the first Cardinal to rush for back-to-back 100-yard games since Johnny Johnson in 1992. Two weeks ago, the Cardinals went into their bye as the worst rushing team in pro football. After shredding the Niners for 165 yards last week, Shipp racked up the most yards by a back against the Bengals in more than two seasons, or when the Bears' Anthony Thomas went off for 188 yards on Oct. 21, 2001 in Chicago's 24-0 victory.
"It's frustrating to me as the middle linebacker," said Kevin Hardy. "All they ran were pretty much counters and leads. Stuff you should be able to stop and we didn't stop."
Lewis fingered all three phases of the game, but also singled out third down where, "they outplayed us and won the game" by converting 50 percent on third down compared to 30 percent for Cincinnati.
Cardinals quarterback Jeff Blake finished just 18-of-28 for 166 yards passing, but he haunted his old Bengals mates hitting six of eight third-down passes for 54 yards and five first downs in the second half.
Rookie wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the NFL's second-leading receiver on third down, took advantage of a secondary that didn't have cornerback Jeff Burris (out with a second-quarter concussion) and caught a seven-yard touchdown pass on third-and-seven to give Arizona its final 17-14 lead 6:48 into the third quarter.
Boldin, who finished with six catches for 51 yards, capped off the 13-play opening drive that set the tone for the second half with Shipp blasting away for six carries for 36 yards. He blew up the Bengals' left side of the line for 19 yards to steamroll the ball into the red zone.
On the first play of the fourth quarter and protecting the three-point lead, Blake converted a third down when he hit tight end Freddie Jones for a nine-yard gain over the middle even though outside linebacker Brian Simmons was called for holding.
Yet Arizona kicker Tim Duncan chipped a 34-yard attempt off the right upright to keep the Bengals breathing with 12:31 left in the game.
"A big opportunity, no question," Lewis said of the loss. "We had a chance to play a team like us. They came out of their bye week and are playing well. They've got their identity. They're running the ball, playing good defense, aggressive defense."
Lewis had taken great pains to prepare his team for the Arizona heat and a strange atmosphere in which just 23,351 fans viewed the proceedings, and he wasn't pleased the Cardinals scored both their touchdowns on their opening drive of each half to keep the Bengals' streak intact this season of failing to score first.
Lewis didn't think his team was mentally lost early, although he said, "We played like we were out of it. We didn't get off to a very good start. We can't get backed up and have a bad punt, and then give up a touchdown early in the football game again ... it's disappointing. The start of the halves weren't very good."
On the first play after the two-minute warning, Kitna overthrew tight end Matt Schobel at midfield to kill the Bengals' last and best hope on an interception by Cardinals free safety Dexter Jackson. They did get the ball back, but it was at their own seven with1:23 left and no timeouts.
Kitna turned to his two favorite targets to grab a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter on an instant-score three-play drive. Wide receiver Chad Johnson skated past cornerback Emmanuel McDaniel and made one of his patented circus catches on the sideline for 41 yards, and the replay challenge by the Cardinals got shot down when the officials said Johnson got both feet in-bounds.
After Dillon got thrown for a one-yard loss, Kitna found wide receiver Peter Warrick all alone in the middle of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass that broke a 7-7 tie 1:21 into the second quarter.
Kitna finished the half with 142 yards on 12-of-18 passing in his bid for three straight games without an interception. Johnson had 59 yards on three catches, but it was another Johnson, running back Rudi, who scored the other touchdown for the Bengals on a two-yard run in the first quarter.
Chad Johnson caught one ball in the second half and had four catches for 75 yards in the game.
The Bengals did a good job containing Blake, holding the former Bengal to 61 yards passing on just eight completions in 14 tries in the half. But they couldn't get a handle on Shipp and his 72 yards in 12 carries. Poor punting set up the Arizona points, the last three coming when Kyle Richardson got off a 37-yarder. That turned into Duncan's 31-yard field goal with 4:14 left in the second quarter to cut the Bengals lead to 14-10.
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, playing for Burris, made a good third-down play on Boldin to force the field goal. Boldin finished the half with two catches for 23 yards.
If there is any doubt the Bengals are getting the breaks that have been missing for years, it was erased with Arizona leading, 7-0, late in the first quarter. Kitna threw one of those back-breaking interceptions in the Arizona end zone that got returned all the way into Bengals territory by Hill.
But outside linebacker Ray Thompson was flagged for roughing Kitna after he threw it, so instead of the Cardinals having a first down at the Bengals 41, Cincinnati had a first down on the Arizona 2. Rudi Johnson did the rest, pinballing off middle linebacker Ronald McKinnon in the backfield for the touchdown that tied the game at seven with 1:14 left in the first quarter.
All the Cardinals got out of it was Hill's scratched eyeball, which may have come from Dillon as he hustled up the field to make the tackle, and Hill missed the rest of the half.
The Bengals set up the score by forcing a break, when linebacker Adrian Ross stripped the ball from Shipp and defensive tackle Tony Williams fell on it at the Cardinals 41. That bailed the Bengals out of some brewing trouble because it came a snap after Shipp pulverized the left side of the Bengals line for 36 yards.
The first eight minutes were disastrous for the Bengals, and no doubt had Lewis spewing about focus and attention to detail. There were five penalties (two were declined), two fumbles (which they recovered) and a sack of Kitna.
Rudi Johnson replaced Brandon Bennett on the kick return team, but he collided with the other returner, Kenny Watson, on the opening kick, and recovered his own fumble before he could only get to his own 13. Then, both guards, rookie Eric Steinbach on the left, and Mike Goff on the right, were called for back-to-back false starts to take the Bengals out of a third-and-two and force a punt. Linebacker Dwayne Levels was called for being illegally downfield on the punt, but it was declined because the poor kick set up Arizona at the Bengals 47.
From there, it took Blake just eight plays to get the touchdown that made it 7-0, with the big play a 17-yarder to Boldin wide open in the middle of the field on third-and-four on a play that Hawkins was called for holding and the Cardinals declined.
Blake got the touchdown on a one-yard flip to Freddie Jones running away from Hardy in coverage with 8:24 left in the first quarter.
After his best week of practice since injuring his groin six weeks ago, Dillon returned to the starting lineup Sunday. Dillon, who didn't play last week after being involved in a car accident on the way to Paul Brown Stadium, had played just once in the past month.
Tony Stewart started at tight end in place of the inactive Reggie Kelly (foot), and strong safety Marquand Manuel got the game-time nod after his strained hamstring passed the test.
Also inactive were right guard Matt O'Dwyer, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, cornerbacks Dennis Weathersby and Terrell Roberts, defensive end Elton Patterson, and outside linebacker LaDairis Jackson. Shane Matthews was the third quarterback
The Bengals captains for Sunday were Chad Johnson for the offense, left end Duane Clemons for the defense, and Levels for the special teams.