Bengals win wild finale

1-6-02, 4:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ The Bengals got another 300-yard passing day from quarterback Jon Kitna, another 100-yard receiving day from Darnay Scott, and about another 90 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.

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.

The Bengals rebounded from what looked to be certain disaster..

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.

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 in Tennessee's victory. 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.

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 Titans running back Eddie 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 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 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 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, 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

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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.

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