Bengals open and close

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

Updated: 9-9-01, 6:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In the last frustrating, oh-so-close minutes, they got a dropped pass, a reversal on instant replay, and a fourth-down measurement by less than a chain link.

And the Bengals fought off the black cloud at sunny Paul Brown Stadium Sunday to win their first opener in four years with a never-over-till-its-over 23-17 victory over the Patriots.

How close was the measurement?

Patriots center Damien Woody thought the Pats were short by a penny. Finally, the Bengals found a lucky penny on the ground.

"That was big. That was big. That was big," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes of the measurement that stopped dangerous New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe at the Bengals 41 with 2:28 left in the game.

"I've been here four years, but I can tell you in the six years before that, we never would have got that. Never would have got that. Yeah, I can feel it changing."

It was an emotional day for Spikes, the Bengals elite fourth-year outside linebacker who savored his first Opening Day win in the NFL by sacking Bledsoe on a blitz in the final two minutes.

Before the game, fellow captain Willie Anderson saw Spikes fighting tears as he thought about his father battling a brain tumor back in Georgia. There could have been more tears when Anderson gave him a game ball.

"The way he played with all that was on his mind was great," Anderson said. "He's a real leader by going out and doing what he did. It's an honor to play with him and be his friend."

Anderson and Spikes gave another game ball to head coach Dick LeBeau on his 64th birthday following his first opener as a head coach.

"This is his team," Anderson said. "It's not going to be flashy. At times, it's going to be ugly. But Coach LeBeau just wants us to be consistent no matter what it looks like."

It was ugly early as the Bengals fell behind, 10-3. Then it was gorgeous when the Bengals scored on five straight possessions for the first time in 20 games to take a 23-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Then it turned ugly again when the Bengals couldn't put the game away with their running game as 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. Throw in wide receiver Darnay Scott's 104-yard day for the club's first 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in the same game since late in the '99 season, the defense's four sacks, and quarterback Jon Kitna's serviceable 204-yard passing day, and it added up to the Bengals learning to close out a beaten foe.

But the crowd of 51,521 couldn't heave a sigh of relief until 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 great thing about today was that guys played hard for the game," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons of a defense that gave the Pats no first downs in the third quarter.

"Before, there were times when if the defense was on the field at the end of

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the game, we wouldn't have had as much confidence," Simmons said. "But guys wanted to be out there. We wanted to be on the field at the end to basically decide if we won or lost."

The Bengals won and are 1-0 for the first time since 1997. Kitna, who got sacked just once while hitting 18 of 27 passes, survived his lone mistake when the ball slipped out of his hands for a first-quarter fumble.

"I said it earlier in the week," Kitna said. "A win this week is going to take us a long way. To come in here Monday and be 1-0 after winning your opener is huge."

Or as cornerback Tom Carter said, "We're in the upper half of the league right now and we have to build on that going into next week."

It got ugly when the Patriots drove 94 yards in less than four minutes to cut the score to 23-17 with 5:29 left in the game 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 long passes to 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.

Scott stretched out for a 34-yard bomb early in the third quarter on a play that Kitna said changed the game because suddenly the Pats had to worry about the deep threat as well as Dillon. The play also 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 as he went in motion 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.

When Simmons and outside linebacker Steve Foley stacked up fullback Marc Edwards on a third-and-1 from the New England 31 with four minutes left in the third quarter, 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 10-10 tie.

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

But the problems that hounded the Bengals last season led to 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 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 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 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.

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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