Updated: 10-26-03, 7:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons had one interception and tipped another in the game's final six minutes as the Bengals literally turned over Seattle's 24-20 lead at the of the third quarter into a sudden 27-24 victory Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Amid chants of "Rudi, Rudi," in honor of Bengals running back Rudi Johnson, the Bengals drained the clock, forced three turnovers, and got a John Thornton blocked field goal in the final wild quarter that saw Cincinnati slay the NFC West leaders to move to 3-4 and finish the month 2-1 for their first winning October since 1989.
Stalking its first West Coast victory since 1990 and first three-game winning streak in four seasons next week in Arizona, Marvin Lewis' methodical rebuilding program designed to erase the last 13 years claimed the Bengals' first back-to-back victories since the final two games of the 2001 season to stay within a game of AFC North leader Baltimore.
The Bengals knitted together their resourceful fourth-quarter victory before 52,131 because they didn't make a turnover for the second straight game, the first time they've done that since a four-game stretch early in the 1998 season. They also did it without running back Corey Dillon and just one big play from their Most Valuable Player of the early season, but it was a big one when quarterback Jon Kitna hit wide receiver Chad Johnson on a slant that Johnson turned into a 53-yard touchdown to give the Bengals the 27-24 lead with 8:03 remaining in the game.
Rudi Johnson rushed for 101 yards on 27 carries in place of the inactive Dillon, and Simmons' tipped pass to cornerback Jeff Burris finalized the deed with 1:46 left. Dillon, unhurt in a single-car accident that delayed his arrival to the game, didn't reach PBS until about noon. But Rudi Johnson delivered the first non-CD 100-yard game since Ki-Jana Carter nicked the Broncos in the third game of the 1997 season, and Cincinnati's first 100-yard game of the season.
"This one is huge because it shows we can win two in a row and if we can win two in a row it means we can win three in a row," said middle linebacker Kevin Hardy. "It puts us back in the hunt and now we've got a chance to get it to .500 next week. This is where you want to be.
"People were excited coming into the year about this football team and now people are getting more excited. People around the league don't want to play this team because we're a team that's been overlooked so much in the past and finally it's playing some good football."
The Bengals are playing well enough to have won three of their last four, their best streak since moving into PBS in 2000, and their first consecutive home victories in two years.
"Guys are coming to the game thinking, 'Hey, we know we're going to win this game.' Not like in the past that we might," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Guys are really thinking, 'If we play our ballgame, we're going to win the football game.' "
The Bengals won even without the services of Dillon.
"Corey Dillon is a great player, but this team is built on more than one person," said Thornton, who also had a sack and fumble recovery. "It would be great to have him, but if he goes down, we've got Rudi and Brandon (Bennett) and Kenny Watson. We've got guys that can fill in. Chad Johnson is emerging as the star of this team. We've got more than enough firepower. I hope he gets healthy. He had a little trouble today. I just hope he gets better, but if we've got anybody in there, we'll be fine. We don't rely on one person."
Maybe that's why head coach Marvin Lewis called it "our best team victory of the season. Over a team who is playing with confidence. I think we are starting to exhibit some of that confidence ourselves. It was one hell of a day."
The news of the day came early when Dillon was involved in a single-car accident on the way to Sunday's game and was unhurt, but deactivated for kickoff. The Bengals confirmed Dillon and his family were unhurt in the wreck, which initial reports said happened near Interstate 275 and Interstate 71 near their Montgomery-area home.
With Dillon delayed, the Bengals didn't have a chance to check on the condition of his injured groin and Lewis was faced with a quick decision because his inactive list had to be filed by 11:30 a.m., and he wasn't yet at the stadium.
All indications are the move had nothing to do with Dillon's outburst last week in which he expressed unhappiness as a Bengal and wouldn't mind a trade.
"Corey really wanted to play," Lewis said. "I said earlier in the week that nothing had changed. I wanted to make sure that Corey felt good about his body physically. He called me in a panic, and then he was OK and then (he watched another accident happen), so the good thing is ... we are happy that Corey and his wife and his family are OK. That was the No. 1 thing I told him. 'We would be OK here. You get yourself right and fixed.' All things happen for a reason. I think we will just have a more ready No. 28 in a week."
Guys like Simmons picked it up. He came up with the second of the three turnovers he took part in when he picked off defensive tackle Oliver Gibson's tipped pass at the line of scrimmage at the Bengals 34 with 5:59 left in the game to thwart another threat.
Seattle rode quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's seamless 347-yard effort, but he couldn't pull a rabbit out of his hat when he took his final snap at his own 20 with three seconds left. Thornton fittingly ended the game by falling on Seattle's fifth turnover of the day after the Seahawks tried a bevy of laterals.
Kitna finished with 240 yards on 19-of-31 passing for two touchdowns, and for the sixth time in seven games out-rated the opposing quarterback. He didn't throw an interception for the third time in four games, and has now thrown eight touchdown passes and one interception in the last four games.
This one, against his hometown team and the one for which he made 33 starts, had to be more than sweet.
"Just the fact that it came against them at this time," Kitna said. "Regardless of who we played, this was a huge game for us. It gave us a chance to get ourselves back into the thick of things. In our division and in the AFC. It has been a long time since we've won two games in a row around here. It was huge already, and then you are playing against the team you cut your teeth with, and that makes it even bigger. I've really tried not to focus on that and go out and just do the things the coaches have been asking me to do, and not really try to make a big splash."
Kitna and Chad Johnson made the biggest wave with the stunning quick strike on third-and-two from the Bengals 47 and Seattle leading, 24-20. On the play after nickel back Willie Williams got flagged for trying to induce Johnson to move, Williams backed off and then fell down as Johnson took it across the field for the winner.
But it almost never happened. Seattle had an unblocked blitzer, the ball hit Bennett as Kitna got set to throw, and Kitna ended up "shotputting" it to Johnson without getting his hands on the laces.
With the teams lugging a 17-17 tie into the third quarter, the turning point looked to come when Seattle scored a touchdown on its only possession of the quarter, a 10-play model of efficiency that only survived when Hasselbeck scrambled for 11 yards into the red zone on third-and-seven. When he hit tight end Itula Mili with a six-yard touchdown pass for a 24-17 lead, the Bengals could only answer with Shayne Graham's 25-yard field goal that made it 24-20 heading into the fourth quarter. The Bengals couldn't convert a 17-play drive into a touchdown despite five snaps from inside the Seattle 5-yard line in which Rudi Johnson carried four times for a yard.
With a fumble forced by Simmons and a leaping, juggling interception by cornerback Tory James, the Bengals had a 2-0 edge in turnovers in the first half that they cashed for 10 points.
Kitna threw for 100 yards and one touchdown on 8-of-12 passing in the first half, but looked to have thrown for another 12 yards into the left corner of the end zone when wide receiver Peter Warrick beat Willie Williams with 1:02 left in the half. Warrick appeared to catch the ball and get both feet in the end zone before losing control, but the Bengals had to settle for Graham's 30-yard field goal that gave them a 17-14 lead.
The Bengals couldn't contain Hasselbeck in his 188-yard half or in the last minute of the half, and his perfect over-the-shoulder throw to wide receiver Koren Robinson went for 29 yards down the left sideline despite James' tight coverage and set up Josh Brown's tying 27-yard field goal on the last play of the half.
For the second time in three games, Rudi Johnson started in Dillon's spot, and he got the Bengals on the board on the first drive when they stunned Seattle with two runs of 32 yards.
The first was Kitna's 14-yard scramble on third-and-13, and on the next play Johnson ripped off an 18-yarder for the Bengals' longest touchdown run of the season. Johnson, who converted a 16-yarder in his other start against Buffalo, broke up the middle and then froze Seattle strong safety Reggie Tongue with a move at the 5-yard line before tying the game at seven with 5:33 left in the first quarter.
Johnson finished the half with 37 yards on 10 carries.
Simmons came up with his second fumble recovery in as many weeks to blunt what looked to be Seattle's go-ahead scoring drive early in the second quarter when he ripped ball from wide receiver Darrell Jackson at the Bengals 25. Warrick then pulled off one of the most electrifying runs of his career when he took a reverse pitch from Kitna.
Kitna got a block on rookie free safety Ken Hamlin and when Hamlin tried to get a hand on his ankle, Warrick jetted through the tackles and broke outside for a 50-yard run. Three plays later on third-and-three, Kitna rolled right and found rookie wide receiver Kelley Washington working in front of Williams in the corner of the end zone for Washington's first NFL touchdown, and ensuing "Squirrel Dance" to celebrate the Bengals 14-7 lead with 10:39 left in the half.
Warrick and Washington were the only Bengal receivers with more than one catch in the first half, and they only had two each against what appeared to be Seattle's Cover 2 defense that took away the long ball.
The Bengals couldn't hold their 14-7 lead because Seattle running back Shaun Alexander became intent on showing the crowd why he is a Northern Kentucky prep legend. He gained all 72 yards of Seattle's tying touchdown drive, including runs of 23, 18 and nine through gaping holes supplied by left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson. He also caught two passes for 18 yards, and that's how he got the final two yards of the drive when he outraced middle linebacker Kevin Hardy to the flat.
He finished with 138 yards running and receiving, 86 on the ground on 20 carries.
The Bengals had problems trying to stop Seattle's West Coast offense on the perimeter. Hasselbeck wheeled the Seahawks down the field in 50 seconds at the end of the half and finished 13-of-22 passing in the half.
The Bengals fell behind for the second straight week on the opening drive, this time when Hasselbeck took advantage of a blown coverage and hit tight end Itula Mili wide open at least five yards behind the Bengals secondary in the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown less than five minutes into the game.
On third-and-11, the Bengals' defensive line did a good job flushing Hasselbeck out of the pocket and just when it appeared Hasselbeck was going to tuck the ball, he stood up and saw Mili behind Hardy and free safety Kevin Kaesviharn.