BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals gathered around hearth and home Sunday in Freezer Bowl II and bowed to tradition in a bid to secure a job for their old-time coach.
While the offensive line went sleeveless in Paul Brown Stadium's minus 20-degree wind chill like they did 19 years ago, the Bengals raised their record to 9-2 in their last 11 home finales by hanging close in a game they had butchered. Until they scored 10 points in the final improbable 75 seconds to beat Jacksonville, 17-14.
Tradition and an odd sense of symmetry. When rookie kicker Neil Rackers hit a 27-yard field goal as time ran out, the Bengals celebrated their first walk-off victory since 1998, when Bengals cornerback Corey Sawyer scored a touchdown in overtime after intercepting a quarterback named Scott Mitchell.
"The whole game was (coach Dick) LeBeau's coaching style," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who sucked it up with a sprained left ankle to help get LeBeau a win.
"Hang around until the fourth quarter. Keep attacking. Keep fighting. Don't give up. And the whole time we were freezing our butts off and it worked out."
Bengals President Mike Brown won't make a call on LeBeau until after next week's finale in Philadelphia and offered no clues Sunday. But he noted what happened.
"It was important for Dick to get a win like that," Brown said. "We've got one more game left and I'd like to see us play out the season with effort. It's going to be tough because (the Eagles) need the game because of the playoffs."
The coldest Cincinnati pro football game since the infamous minus 59-degree wind chill of the 1982 AFC title game worked out for the Bengals even though:
_The Bengals had four turnovers and didn't grab one of the game's six fumbles until 1:07 left.
The Bengals had three instant-replay calls go against them.
_The Bengals had the ball just eight minutes in the second half, a grueling patch of the day when they lost a fumble recovery because of penalty on their punt team.
"Instead of finding a way to lose, we found a way to win," said Mitchell, now reincarnated with a 2-2 record as the Bengals starting quarterback.
With the Bengals now 4-11 with one game left next Sunday, they are 4-8 since LeBeau took over and some infuential players are lobbying hard to keep him. And they knew there couldn't be a repeat of last Sunday's 35-3 blowout in Nashville.
"We knew we couldn't lose the last two and play bad in this one," Anderson said. "There's no doubt about that. Everybody was tight this week. Players were tight. Coaches were tight. We all knew the implication of this game.
"You had guys playing hurt and doing whatever so Mike Brown can help persuade the fans about (not) bringing in a new coach."
It was a curious day on the river as the Bengals and Jaguars flailed at each other on a frozen, treacherous snow-covered field that curdled into mud.
In the last 4:37, the Bengals parlayed Jacksonville's missed field 28-yard field goal, a Jaguars' personal foul, Jacksonville's fumbled kickoff, and 87 yards from Bengals rookie receiver Danny Farmer in a finish as wild as the wind whistling off the river.
How cold was it?
Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes, who celebrated his 24th birthday with a sack of Jags quarterback Mark Brunell to help save the Bengals from their many errors, said it was like playing on the South Pole.
Mitchell, who scrambled 12 yards for a touchdown with 75 seconds left to tie the game at 14 on third down, said his mouth was nearly frozen shut as he tried to call the plays in the huddle.
Rookie Peter Warrick, who skated like Bobby Orr and Wayne Gtretzky on an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown, said in the first quarter, "ain't it the fourth quarter yet?"
"If ever a team deserved to win a game, it was our team today," LeBeau said. "The thing that was most rewarding as a coach was to see the guys hang in there and have so much go against them and win the game in the end. That's the thing we've been trying to get done."
LeBeau has no idea what will happen beyond Christmas Eve: "I don't think this will hurt (in returning as coach) any. That's all I have to say about it."
The Jags had plenty to say about the field after they warmed their feet in the locker room.
When Pro Bowl tackle Tony Boselli was told the field was rolled at halftime, he said, "They should have bulldozed it." He also said the NFL should look at the problem, which the Bengals don't think will exist next year because they are installing a permanent field with tougher grass.
It took Jaguars running back Fred Taylor 32 carries to get 110 yards, but it was good enough to extend his streak of nine straight 100-yard days and to take another shot at the grass he called "a dirt bike track," last week.
"This was the best pasture I've ever played in," Taylor said. Brunell said, "it was ridiculous." Kicker Mike Hollis, who began the last 4:37 by slipping on a 28-yard attempt, said it was the worst he's ever seen.
But Bengals like Warrick, Rackers and punter Daniel Pope thought the footing was better than two weeks ago against Arizona because the cold had firmed it up.
"It was better than it usually was," said Warrick, the life-long Floridian. "No man, the cold didn't bother me. Don't you know I'm from Detroit?"
Which is where you could have heard Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin screaming at his team after the game in the locker room.
The field was bad, but Bengals safety Tremain Mack forced a fumble at the Jaguars 34 on the last kickoff when he stripped the Jags' Shyrone Stith and Canute Curtis recovered.
Then when Jags linebacker Kevin Hardy took a shot at tight end Marco Battaglia after a play to draw a 15-yard penalty, the Bengals were at the Jags 12 and had 51 seconds to line up the first game-winning attempt of Rackers' career.
"Here we are in a situation at the very least it goes overtime," Coughlin said. "Instead we fumble the ball right back to them almost on the edge, with the wind at his back, almost on the brink of field-goal range as it was. But the personal foul, to get involved with that, you do not do that. You lose your poise and cost your team. It was not an individual thing."
But like Mitchell said, "We didn't get any calls, we didn't get any bounces. Everything was going against us. A lot of teams would have packed it in and said it's too cold to play,' and give up. This team might have at one time. Not now. Instead of finding a way to lose, we found a way to win."
Spikes wants LeBeau back, too, and he was warmed by Sunday's events.
"It was cold. So cold," Spikes said. "Look at how many times we could have quit. A lot of heart. We've got a lot of heart."
Several times it looked like they were finding ways to go to 3-12 instead of 4-11 against the 7-8 Jags. . .
Continued from Homepage
Minutes after tying the game with an electrifying 82-yard punt return, Warrick fumbled a punt at his own 11 and Taylor scored on a five-yard touchdown run three plays later to give the Jaguars a 14-7 lead with 4:57 left in the third quarter.
It was the kind of day everyone knew one mistake could ice it and the Bengals made four in the game's first 41 minutes with four turnovers.
The punting game was huge in Sunday's ugly conditions. Trailing 14-7 in the first minute of the fourth quarter, the Bengals thought they had the ball on the Jaguars 30 after linebacker Billy Granville recovered Reggie Barlow's fumbled punt.
But the Bengals were called for not having enough men on the line of scrimmage and had to punt again.
Early in the third quarter, Warrick warmed up a brave crowd of about 25,000 souls (50,469 tickets were sold) when for a touchdown off a punt that tied the game at 7 early in the third quarter.
Warrick juked right, juked left, and juked right again in running about 182 yards on the Bengals' first touchdown off a kick or punt this season.
Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon made two of the mistakes with two fumbles and Jacksonville took the opening and a 7-0 lead at half-time that looked as big as 77-0 given the conditions.
Dillon lost his second fumble of the game at his own 33 with 1:54 left in the half and the Jaguars took five plays to score.
On third-and-goal, Jags wide receiver Jimmy Smith cut in front of rookie cornerback Mark Roman on a corner route for a three-yard touchdown pass with 27 seconds left in the half.
The Bengals' best shot at scoring came when the usually sure-fingered Dillon ripped off a 12-yard gain to the Jacksonville 34. But Jags defensive end Tony Brackens forced a fumble with a strip of Dillon from behind. Dillon had only two fumbles all season coming into the game.
Dillon started better than the Jags' fellow 1,000-yard rusher on the slippery surface. Dillon had 52 yards on his first seven carries, 25 of them coming when he reversed field on the first play of the game. He finished with 76 yards and had only 17 carries because the Bengals had the ball for eight minutes in the second half.
It was tough sledding, but Brunell looked like he was playing in August with 19 of 28 passing for 170 yards.
Mitchell struggled all day, hitting 10 of 22 passes for 171 yards, and coming up short on a few passes. He underthrew Warrick late in the third quarter to get intercepted by Jags safety Mike Logan.
Earlier in the week, Taylor ripped the Paul Brown Stadium grass, calling it "a dirt bike track." But he got a skating rink instead, thanks to a massive dip in temperatures and Sunday morning snow showers.
Last week had to seem like last year for Jacksonville. They rolled over Arizona, 44-10, last Sunday in 61-degree weather at home.
The closest thing to "Freezer Bowl," conditions came when the Bengals beat the Bears, 16-10, five years and a week ago on Dec. 10, 1995. Quarterback Jeff Blake threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Darnay Scott and Doug Pelfrey kicked three field goals.