11-23-03, 6:40 p.m.
11-23-03, 7:40 p.m. Updated:
11-24-03, 7:55 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
SAN DIEGO _ The Bengals beat San Diego's "Miracle Man," here Sunday as head coach Marvin Lewis kept his team's miracle season going in a 34-27 victory over the Chargers that kept the 6-5 Bengals tied for first place in the AFC North with the Ravens.
But as the Bengals crawled back over .500 for the first time in more than two years after last season's 2-14 season, they had to hold off quarterback Doug Flutie and his Chargers 19 years to the day that Flutie led Boston College to a last-play victory over Miami with a Hail Mary pass.
A 21-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Artrell Hawkins covering wide receiver Reche Caldwell set up running back LaDainian Tomlinson's six-yard touchdown run with 3:04 left in the game that cut the lead to 34-27.
The Bengals turned to the man who has meant so much to them down through the years as running back Corey Dillon tried to finish off his first 100-yard game of the season with the Bengals holding on to the ball. After Dillon got eight yards on two carries to finish with 108 yards on 18 carries, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hit wide receiver Peter Warrick for a five-yard gain on third down to allow the Bengals to keep the ball and force San Diego to call its last timeout with 2:31 left. Then, on the next third down, Kitna hit rookie wide receiver Kelley Washington for a nine-yard gain for another first down that gave Cincinnati a staggering 65-percent conversion rate on third down (13-for-20) at the two-minute warning on the Cincinnati 48.
That gave the Bengals' their first victory in California since 1990, and ended a 0-11 skein west of the Rockies since 1994. It was also their third straight victory for their first three-game winning streak since 1999.
Kitna finished 24-for-38 with 243 yards and joined Boomer Esiason and Ken Anderson as the only Bengals to throw four touchdown passes in a half. Three went to wide receiver Chad Johnson as part of his career-high 10-catch day for 107 yards that put the AFC's leading receiver 12 yards away from a 1,000-yard season.
"The big thing about this game is," Kitna said, "we won a game we were supposed to win. We came out here and took care of business, and that's not easy in the NFL."
The Bengals unveiled their new two-man rotation in the backfield. Rudi Johnson, who had three 100-yard games while Dillon rehabbed from an injured groin, fortified him with 65 yards on 16 carries as the Bengals rushed for over 200 yards (225) for the third straight week.
"We're going to call them Double Trouble," said left guard Eric Steinbach. "Both of them are healthy now, and it's going to be a great thing for us to take both of them right at teams."
But it very well might have been the play of the rookie Washington that typified the bold, new way the Bengals played on the road as they discover how deep their roster is.
On the Bengals' last touchdown drive, a 43-second blitz after the Bengals stopped the Chargers on fourth down, was all Washington as he beat cornerback Quentin Jammer on a four-yard fade route in the right corner of the end zone with 11 seconds left in the half.
Moments earlier, Washington went in the air on the right sideline to wrestle the ball away from Jammer for a 30-yard play that held up on replay. Then, Washington took a quick pass on other side and alertly got out of bounds for a nine-yard gain.
Then, of course, came his huge catch over the middle on third-and-5 as he worked against another rookie in cornerback Sammy Davis for a nine-yard gain that ended the game at the two-minute warning.
"Kelley came up huge. He's been busting his rear end," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowksi. "We've been moving him around because we've been featuring Chad and Pete, and a lot of guys would be frustrated with that. But he's kept a great attitude and worked hard and you saw the result of that today."
The 6-3, 218-pound Washington said his 30-yard catch, the longest of his career, was simply a matter of getting position on Jammer. This is why they drafted him in the third round out of Tennessee, just like they took the Vols' Carl Pickens in the second round in 1992. Because of his size and strength and ability to get position.
"He had good position on the ball," Washington said of Jammer. "I was able to slip underneath him and it just came down to who was going to come down with it. I just kind of rolled over on the ground to get position and the referee knew it was going to be my ball. He had it first in the air. I grabbed it and rolled to get good body position."
Washington turned out to be a big weapon in the Bengals' game plan of exploiting the Chargers' young secondary. The Bengals looked to employ more three-receiver sets to spread out San Diego. On what turned out be the last play of the game, Washington found himself one-on-one with Davis as the Chargers were looking for Warrick and Chad Johnson on third-and-five with 2:25 left from the Bengals 39.
"He made two wonderful catches," Kitna said.
Washington's eyes lit up at the one-on-one coverage because of a blitz, but he knew he was going to get drilled no matter what happened because Davis was playing inside him to take away the middle. In fact, many observers thought Davis hit Washington before he had a chance to get the ball. It was time for him to use his athleticism again to get position.
"I had to run a slant and it was going to be a tough catch either way," Washington said. "I was going to get hit or make a big catch. I was able to get underneath him, and that's what I'm supposed to do. I'm a big receiver and I take pride on making plays like that."
With the Bengals' road struggles well chronicled, Lewis' strategy was simple.
"It said on the chalkboard before the game, 'Get off to a quick start,'" said right tackle Willie Anderson. "We have to take this game in stride. We're taking this as just the first game of our three- game road trip. The plan is to take it one at a time."
Dillon, who last had a 100-yard game in week 15 of last season, ripped off the longest run of his season on Sunday's first carry with a 39-yarder.
"I felt good. How did I look?" Dillon asked. "I think we were feeding off of each other. I'm a veteran, I know how to handle something like that."
After racking up their most first-half points in a game since 1999 to take a 28-13 half-time lead , the Bengals had to settle for two Shayne Graham field goals for their second-half scoring. The last one was a season-long 47 yards with 5:26 left in the game.
The Bengals did keep the ball for 7:31 in the third quarter with Dillon getting his biggest workload since week two. Dillon carried five times for 25 yards but fullback Jeremi Johnson was inches shy of a first down on a third-and-two run from the Charger 21. The Bengals opted for Graham's 37-yard field goal with 2:23 left in the third quarter to take a 31-13 lead.
But on the first play of the fourth quarter, Flutie found Chargers wide receiver David Boston for a 26-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 31-20. Boston, who finished with 139 yards on nine catches, was well covered by cornerback Tory James, but Boston stretched out to make the fingertip grab in the end zone.
Flutie had nothing left in his bag of tricks. He finished 15 of 33 for 210 yards. The Bengals made sure Tomlinson didn't hurt them in the second half. He had just 27 of his 95 yards after halftime on seven carries.
When the Bengals took the field for Sunday's kickoff, the Qualcomm Stadium scoreboard gave them the best of news. Seattle's impending victory over Baltimore would put them in first place all by themselves by a half game in the AFC North even before they took a snap against the Chargers. Plus, the Steelers' victory over Cleveland opened the possibility that the Bengals could take a two-game lead over both with a win here.
But as the Ravens scored 17 fourth-quarter points on the way to a shocking overtime victory, the Bengals responded to 13 straight Charger points to reel off 14 of their own in the final 1:25 of the half as Kitna tied his own career best with four touchdown passes on 16 of 24 passing for 168 yards. Johnson rung up his third touchdown on what amounted to a long lateral from Kitna at the end of the line of scrimmage, Johnson froze the beleaguered Davis with a juke to the outside and cut inside for a 12-yard touchdown with 1:25 left in the half.
The Bengals made no bones about going after the Chargers' young secondary when they cashed on their first two drives with Johnson working against Jammer, a second-year first-round pick. Johnson scored his first on a five-yard throw when he kept his feet in on a sideline route. Then he scored with 3:35 left in the first quarter on third-and-goal when he caught a slant in front of Jammer from four yards out as the Bengals took a 14-0 lead and Johnson went on to finish the half with 71 yards on seven catches. Washington had four catches for 52 yards and wide receiver Kevin Walter logged his first NFL catch for nine yards the play before Washington scored.
Vying for their first victory in California since Oct. 7 1990, the Bengals came out like a division leader is supposed to against a last-place team even if it's on the road. By the time the Chargers got their first first down, the Bengals had 11 first downs, 144 yards, and Dillon had his longest run of the season.
Dillon had 70 yards on nine carries in the half even though he didn't start. Johnson had 38 yards on six carries as they appeared to rotate a series here and a drive there. Each had 10-yard runs in the drive that followed Steve Christy's 26-yard field goal that cut Cincinnati's lead to 14-13.
As quickly as the Bengals had it, they lost it when the Chargers ran off 13 straight points in a span of 11 minutes to cut the lead to 14-13 with 4:08 left in the first half on Christy's field goal. That was set up on Kitna's fumble after Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley appeared to race by right tackle Willie Anderson and sack Kitna from the blindside while also hitting the ball. Defensive end Adrian Dingle fell on the Bengals' first turnover in two weeks on the Cincinnati 40.
When the Chargers did break loose, it was with a bang. Tomlinson went over 1,000 yards for the season when he blew up the middle for a 38-yard gain, and Flutie hit a wide-open Boston down the right sideline for a 37-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in the first quarter. It looked to be a blown coverage with cornerback Tory James not running down the side with Boston and free safety Mark Roman converging late on the play.
Tomlinson, who has had two 100-yard days against the Bengals in two tries, looked to be headed that way again with 68 yards on nine carries in the first half.
Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh dressed for the first time this season after suffering a hamstring injury the week of the opener. With Dillon apparently as close to 100 percent for the first since injuring his knee and then his groin in the second and third weeks of the season, Lewis replaced Houshmandzadeh with running back Kenny Watson on the inactive list.
Also inactive Sunday for Cincinnati were TE Reggie Kelly, CB Jeff Burris, OL Scott Kooistra, OL Victor Leyva, OLB LaDairis Jackson, and DE Elton Patterson. Shane Matthews is the third quarterback.