1-6-02, 3:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ Taking a cue from last week, the Bengals rallied for two touchdowns in the final 6:29 of the first half to forge a 14-14 half-time tie in a wild season finale here at Adelphia Coliseum.
The Bengals broke their team record for sacks on the Titans' last two drives of the half, each taking Tennessee out of field-goal range. Rookie defensive end Justin Smith set the club rookie record with 8.5 sacks (not to mention nailing his $2 million escalator), and then linebacker Takeo Spikes drilled quarterback Steve McNair in the last minute of the half for the Bengals' record 47th sack of the season.
McNair apparently got hurt on the play because he left for good at halftime with back spasms and the Titans called on backup Neil O'Donnell to finish the season.
Bengals running back Corey Dillon scored both touchdowns in the first half, the last one coming on a 34-yard bolt up the middle out of the two minute drill that tied the game at 14 with 1:18 left in the half. On the previous play, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hooked up with receiver Chad Johnson for a 28-yard catch and run.
The Bengals' passing game that fashioned last week's comeback over the Steelers didn't show up until the middle of the second quarter and it took a huge break. Facing a third-and-13 at his own 32, Kitna appeared to throw his second interception of the game.
But Titans cornerback Michael Booker let the ball go through his
hands into those of Bengals receiver Darnay Scott as Scott lay flat on his back for a 22-yard gain.
With Bengals rookie receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on the sidelines with an ankle injury, Kitna went looking for receiver Danny Farmer and Farmer made a leaping 27-yard catch against cornerback DeRon Jenkins to put the ball at the Titans 2. Dillon, who finished the half with 58 yards on 12 carries, walked into the end zone behind the left side of the line to cut Tennessee's lead to 14-7 with 6:29 left in the half.
Kitna finished the half with 11 of 19 passing for 137 yards.
But McNair toyed with the depleted Cincinnati secondary, frying Cincinnati on a long touchdown pass and a six-yard touchdown run. Wide receiver Derrick Mason went off with 144 receiving yards in the first half on seven catches.
The Bengals couldn't cash the game's first turnover and the Titans converted the second to take a 7-0 lead less than six minutes in the game.
Bengals safety Chris Carter recovered Joe Walker's fumbled punt at the Titans 48, but Kitna gave it right back on a fourth-and-one from the Titans 39 when he got the first down on a sneak but fumbled it away when linebacker Frank Chamberlain punched it out of his hands.
McNair wasted no time making it count. Cornerback Robert Bean, starting in place of the injured Artrell Hawkins, got burned by Mason when Mason ran right by on him for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
The Bengals' run defense, vowing to prevent Eddie George from becoming the fourth man in history to start his career with six 1,000-yard seasons, became suddenly undermanned. Left end Vaughn Booker was deactivated with a hip problem and defensive tackle Glen Steele was lost for a period of time when he sprained his knee in the game's first six minutes. But he was available to return and George had just 29 yards on 10 carries in the first half.
Cincinnati put its 10th-ranked defense in the NFL and its streak of nine straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher against George's bid to rush for 1,000 yards in his first six seasons.
George needed 111 yards and Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons didn't blink an eye last week when he said, "He's not going to get it. He's a great back, but we have to take him away and stop the run. If we don't, we're not going to win."
The 16th game played out against a backdrop of questions for next season concerning the coaching staff. No major changes are expected, but the staff may not be set until after the coaches meet with management Monday morning.
But Simmons reflected the confidence of a unit that feels it has turned the corner while putting up the best defensive numbers in more than a decade.
Hawkins didn't start with his low-grade shoulder separation and Bean got the Hawkins did play nickel back and he had to. After three season-ending injuries at cornerback, rookie Bo Jennings is the fourth corner.
If the Bengals hold Tennessee to 296 yards or less, they would hold foes to less than 300 yards per game for the first time since 1983.
No snow hit Nashville as predicted, but the game was played in a 35ish-degree rain.