1-6-02, 4:20 p.m. Updated: 1-6-01, 11:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ The Bengals got another 300-yard passing day from quarterback Jon Kitna (340), another 100-yard receiving day from Darnay Scott (152), and 87 yards from running back Corey Dillon.
And they got another winning field goal from Neil Rackers, this one with 20 seconds left from 34 yards as the Bengals beat the Titans here at Adelphia Coliseum, 23-21, in a wild finale that finished the Bengals' season at 6-10.
The Bengals believe that record, along with the Chiefs' loss, gives them the 10th pick in April's NFL Draft.
"It's going to be huge. It gives guys confidence," Kitna said after the second straight improbable finish. "It gives guys confidence to know that we can not only win, but we can beat the good teams in this league. We can win on the road. We can win games we're not supposed to win. We can win in the fourth quarter when it looks like everything that can go wrong will. I think guys will be excited for the offseason, the May minicamp, guys will be excited to come back."
With the Titans leading 21-20 since early in the fourth quarter, defensive captain Takeo Spikes' group made the win possible. In realizing their goal of preventing Titans running back Eddie George from getting 111 yards for a 1,000-yard season, the Bengals didn't allow George to take over the game. They stuffed him for 50 yards on just 21 carries and forced Tennessee to punt on its last two possessions in putting an exclamation point on the club's best defensive season in more than a decade.
"The character is unbelievable on this football team," Spikes said. "We fought hard and battled throughout the game. It is easy for any team to go through a (seven)-game losing streak and just lay down at the end of the season. I am proud of all the guys because we did not do that. It should have never come to that. I think that our season should not be over now."
Kitna got the ball back with two minutes left and no timeouts and hooked up with Scott on a 39-yard play that put the ball on the Tennessee 31. A pass interference penalty against wide receiver Chad Johnson got the Bengals 14 more and it was left to Dillon to pound out position for Rackers.
Kitna ended a curious season in which he threw 13 interceptions during the seven-game losing streak and went 26 straight quarters without a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.
But he also ended up throwing the most passes in Bengals history with 581 and the second most completions with 313 and became their first 3,000-yard passer since Jeff Blake in 1996. He also became the first quarterback since Blake in '96 to win two road games.
After scoring 57 points in the seven-game losing streak, the offense produced 49 points in the season's last two games by averaging 490 yards against Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense and Tennessee's unit that's ranked 25th.
"In the last two weeks, we showed what this offense can do," Kitna said. "It's been a long process getting comfortable in the (new) system. For everybody. But I think everybody has kind of found their role. The coaches have figured out different things about players, maybe about me. Those are things I think will produce nothing but positive results in the future."
The 39-yarder to Scott on third-and-10 is the way it's supposed to work. Kitna threw it on time to Scott over the middle, and he got about 30 of the yards after the catch because he caught it in stride.
"He wanted it," Kitna said. "We had an underneath crossing guy that held the linebackers just a little bit. Just enough to get them to hesitate to give me room between the linebackers and the safeties. The safety in the middle slipped just a little bit coming out of his break and that was enough for Darnay to get past him."
The Bengals survived a batch of adversity before Rackers drilled his second straight winner. And the black cloud Bengals even cut a break there when Randy Chevrier's long snap didn't appear to beat the play clock.
On third down from the Titans 1 with less than seven minutes left in the game, the Bengals sent Dillon on a sweep right for an option pass. Dillon had tight end Kirk McMullen open in the end zone, but linebacker Greg Favors was able to tip it in the air and intercept it as he went out of bounds.
Dillon, who has been playing with his right pinky taped since he dislocated it three weeks ago, said he was surprised the call came.
"I just couldn't get a good feel for the ball," said Dillon, who also had three catches.
The Bengals also had to overcome a groin injury to left tackle Richmond Webb early in the second half. That left 37-year-old John Jackson on Pro Bowl end Jevon
Kearse. Jackson shut out Kearse and said after the game he would return to play next season.
It didn't matter who played quarterback for Tennessee. Steve McNair and Neil O'Donnell both took advantage of the injury to cornerback Artrell Hawkins and showcased wide receiver Derrick Mason.
Mason beat Hawkins' replacement, Robert Bean, for two long touchdown passes. The second one, with O'Donnell playing for the
injured McNair, came from 35 yards out in the last minute of the third quarter and gave the Titans a 21-20 lead and Mason 186 yards receiving.
Bengals coach Dick LeBeau got the second-guessers going when he passed up a 47-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, but punter Nick Harris couldn't pin the Titans deep when he kicked it into the end zone.
"Well I didn't want people to turn off the TV set," LeBeau said. "I wanted to keep it interesting so we could go down to the last kick. I thought we had a real good chance. We gave them the wind in the third quarter because we thought the wind was a real factor today. I thought with the wind with our guys back we really had the odds. Kick them down in there and plug them in there and get the stop, but we didn't get that. Actually from that sequence, we drop right down to the four-yard line and they made a great play down there and got the pick. I still felt good about our chances about getting down there and getting the kick or the score."
Rackers said he wasn't happy when LeBeau decided to play field position. But when the Titans ended up punting into the wind and the Bengals drove to the Titans 1 before Dillon's interception, Rackers said, "That's why he's the coach. He knew what he was doing."
Rackers' struggles have been well documented. Particularly last week, when his missed extra point cost the Bengals a win in regulation against the Steelers. Even the first overtime field goal of his career moments later didn't make him feel better. But his three-for-three effort Sunday made him feel much better.
"I was standing there just thinking, 'We're going after this one,'" Rackers said of the winner. "I was just flat out going after it. Just stroke it. That's how it was all day. Head down. Follow through."
Rackers had given Cincinnati a 20-14 lead with field goals from 30 and 33 yards in the third quarter, the last with 2:21 left in the third quarter.
Bengals safety Darryl Williams set up one of the field goals when he wrenched the ball from George at the Tennessee 35. The Bengals had a shot to get a touchdown with a first down inside the 20, but Dillon was hit with a 15-yard penalty for making a block after the whistle.
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.
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 Spikes drilled McNair in the last minute of the half for the Bengals' record 47th sack of the season.
"It was a pick play for my man Justin," said Spikes, who had two sacks. "But they were waiting for him, so I just went in, too."
The win cost the Bengals $2.5 million because not only did Smith hit his escalator, but wide receiver Peter Warrick had five catches to give him the 70 he needed this season for a $500,000 bonus, plus a $500,000 raise in salary.
Spikes finished the season with six sacks, the first time in history the Bengals had five different players with at least five sacks.
McNair apparently got hurt on the play because he left for good at halftime with back spasms and the Titans called on O'Donnell to finish the season.
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, 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 Scott as Scott lay flat on his back. Scott got up and ran about 10 more yards to complete a 22-yard play.
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.
But McNair toyed with the depleted Cincinnati secondary, frying Cincinnati on a long touchdown pass and a six-yard touchdown run. 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. Bean, starting in place of Hawkins, got burned by Mason when Mason ran right by on him for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
The Bengals' run defense, vowing not to let George become 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 jacked its streak to 10 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons didn't blink an eye last week when he said, "(George is) 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."
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. It's the first time they've been ranked in the top 10 since 1989.
Hawkins didn't start with his low-grade shoulder separation, but did play nickel back.