Big, bad number

12-8-02, 4:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ In a season of embarrassments, this one took the cake. But then, the Panthers probably took that, too.

Carolina, which came into the game with the second fewest points in the NFL this year, put up the most points by a team in the league this year in a 52-31 win over a Bengals team completely unraveling into the offseason. The Bengals, 1-12 for the third time in history and the first time since 1993, allowed their most points ever, more than the Bills put on them in a 51-24 loss in 1979.

"Giving up 52 points on any level is tough, bad," said Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "Yes, it's embarrassing, 1-12 is embarrassing, everything is embarrassing."

The Bengals decided to give Travis Dorsch his first NFL action Sunday after 12 games of inactivity and the move literally came right back at them.

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith took two low, line-drive punts by Dorsch for touchdown returns and Dorsch capped off his debut with a 10-yard punt.

"He led the country in punting last year," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, who said the rookie would not punt next week. "I wanted to see what he could do."

This one was exceedingly embarrassing because before the second-half outburst, the Panthers trailed, 17-16, and had scored no offensive touchdowns. They got 23 of their points on the two returns, a Bengals' fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, and a safety as Cincinnati's offense rolled up decent numbers against the NFL's sixth-best defense.

Wide receiver Chad Johnson had 114 yards receiving on six catches, and quarterback Jon Kitna threw for 295 yards, but they couldn't keep up with the dizzying display on special teams.

Smith took the second kick and went 87 yards up the middle of the field. Fullback Lorenzo Neal, called for being illegally down field, dove, and missed at his feet, and Smith ran by long snapper Brad St. Louis and then Dorsch to give Carolina a 37-24 lead with 5:37 left in the third quarter.

But the Bengals' defense also couldn't shut down the league's next to worst passing offense. Quarterback Rodney Peete threw for 319 yards, breaking Cincinnati's streak of 26 straight games not allowing a 300-yard passer, and Smith chalked up 144 yards receiving, while Muhsin Muhammad added 106.

The Bengals took their last lead early in the third quarter when linebacker Takeo Spikes returned a Peete fumble 45 yards for a score to make it 24-23 with 11:10 left in the third quarter.

The Bengals began the game unable to get out of the shadow of their own goal line here Sunday, but rebounded to take a 17-16 half-time lead during a bizarre first half.

The Bengals jumped to a 7-0 edge

on wide receiver Peter Warrick's 37-yard touchdown catch in their most efficient 2:14 of the season. But the following 15 minutes were filled with so many shocking mistakes that the Panthers took a 16-7 lead in the first two minutes of the second quarter without scoring an offensive touchdown.

The deluge was capped by Dorsch's first NFL punt from scrimmage getting returned for a 61-yard touchdown by Smith, the second punt returned against the Bengals this season.

Yet the Bengals rode Kitna back into the land of living. He hit Warrick on a crossing route over the middle for a four-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 16-14 with 8:18 left in the half, marking the first time in Warrick's 45 NFL games he has had more than one touchdown.

But he had to leave the game with a chest bruise early in the second half and his return was questionable.

Kitna finished the half on 15 of 21 passing for 179 yards, and no interceptions against the NFL's sixth-best defense. He closed the half with a 14-play, 73-yard drive that produced Neil Rackers' 24-yard field goal with 45 seconds left.

Bengals running back Corey Dillon, who had 54 yards on 15 carries in the half and finished with 55 on 18, had the big play when he bolted off the left side for a 17-yard run on third-and-one from the Bengals 46.

Dorsch's debut came earlier because he had to execute a free kick after Dillon got tackled in the end zone for a safety that gave the Panthers a 9-7 lead 12 minutes into the game. Defensive end Mike Rucker and strong safety Mike Minter made the tackle, but it was former Bengal tackle Brentson Buckner working against right guard Mike Goff that blew up the play.

Dorsch, the fourth-round pick drafted as a field-goal kicker, found himself waging a battle with NFL punting leader Todd Sauerbrun as Nick Harris, the Bengals' regular punter, took a spot on the inactive list. Sauerbrun had an impact right away on his first kick, pinning the Bengals on their own four-yard line with Cincinnati leading, 7-0.

On the next play, Dillon and Kitna couldn't connect on a handoff and defensive end Al Wallace fell on the fumble for a touchdown six minutes into the game.

The Bengals' defense held up against an offense ranked next to last in the NFL and forced its first turnover in more than eight quarters at an opportune time when linebacker Takeo Spikes and strong safety JoJuan Armour forced running back Dee Brown's fumble at the Bengals 2, which was recovered by defensive end Bernard Whittington.

The half-time stats were again jarring. The Bengals had more first downs (16-6), more yards (249-115), and Dee Brown had just 16 yards rushing on nine carries in a game they could have very well been ahead by 28-7.

Maybe it was a coincidence with former Bengals head coach Sam Wyche in the house, but the Bengals' first drive came courtesy of a no-huddle offense that featured a few five-receiver sets with no backs.

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