11-17-02, 4:10 p.m.
11-17-02, 6:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For the second straight home game, the Bengals couldn't get Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon a yard.
And they lost by a touchdown again. This time it was 27-20 to the Browns Sunday in front of a sell-out crowd of 64,060 at Paul Brown Stadium, the second biggest crowd in the facility's three-year run next to last year's 24-14 win over Cleveland.
It was a devastating defeat for a Bengals' team that prides itself on its running game and the franchise's all-time leading rusher.
"We ran our best back behind our best lead blocker and our best linemen and didn't score," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau.
If that's not the epitaph of this 1-9 season, what is?
Maybe that in a game Cleveland stuffed Dillon on back-to-back runs over the right side from the Browns 1 on third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal with six minutes left in the game, Cleveland's dormant running attack gashed the Bengals with rookie running back William Green's career-high 96-yards despite his team's last-place standing in the NFL rushing standings. The Browns rolled up a season-high 140 yards rushing for just the second time over 100 yards this season.
"I don't care what anybody says, we've got a good thing going here," said Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, who had guaranteed the win earlier in the week.
Now, Johnson fought back tears in the post-game locker room after his second straight 100-yard day on four catches for 103 yards.
"We just have to find a way to break through. No copouts. No changes for next year," Johnson said.
Johnson and quarterback Jon Kitna hooked up on a 72-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game for the Bengals' longest scoring pass in three years. But they shoe-horned a season of hearbreak into the fourth quarter.
Their fumble recovery of Browns punt returner Dennis Northcutt's bobble at the Bengals 44 with 10 minutes left and the Browns leading, 24-20, was wiped out by an interference call on linebacker Adrian Ross and led to Phil Dawson's icing 40-yard field goal for the 27-20 lead.
Then, after Dillon got stopped, Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh fumbled a punt at the Browns 42 with 3:53 left, leaving the Bengals frustrated and grousing about the officials.
Ross insisted he slammed into Northcutt because no fair catch signal had been given and Northcutt had enough time to run up and try to make a catch.
"This isn't college. That's a catch he should have made a fair catch on," Ross said. "The ball was short and he's moving up for it. It's not like a ball that he was just standing there and I ran into him. He's moving toward my way. That was his chance to make that play."
Houshmandzadeh said he misjudged his punt, but it had nothing to do with a brisk northwest wind. Ross left unimpressed with the Browns' running game.
"They came in here and they said they were going to run the ball and they did," Ross said. "Their running backs aren't that good. They're sorry.
Their running backs are weak. And we let them shine like they were Walter Payton."
Dillon, the Bengals' Payton, got 4.8 yards per his 19 carries for 92 yards. But he couldn't get one on those two plays. Right tackle Willie Anderson, the team's best run blocker, said the play was designed to go outside, off the tight end, and he's not sure what happened.
"I was on the ground," Anderson said. "It looked like everyone got their blocks. I blocked down on Gerard Warren. (Right guard) Mike Goff (pulled and) kicked out his guy. (Tight end) Matt Schobel got his block."
On third down, Dillon looked like he was going to follow fullback Lorenzo Neal standing up into the end zone, but Browns inside linebacker Earl Holmes came from nowhere to stop Dillon.
Then, on fourth down, the Bengals went the same way but it looked like Neal had to take on both Holmes and linebacker Darren Hambrick. Hambrick got to Dillon first and Holmes finished it off.
The stand spoiled Brandon Bennett's 82-yard kick return that set up the series. Dillon couldn't get into the same end zone where he triped over left guard Matt O'Dwyer on fourth-and-one on Oct. 27 in a 30-24 loss to Tennessee three weeks before.
"Darren stood him up and I just tried to make sure he didn't cross the plane," said Holmes, who had been told earlier in the week by his position coach a goal-line stand would come down to him and Dillon one-on-one.
The Browns won Sunday's shootout in a second half they scored touchdowns and the Bengals could only respond with field goals.
The Bengals' defense just couldn't stop the Browns much of the day. Until late in the game. Bengals defensive tackle Tony Williams stuffed Green on third-and-one to force Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal that gave the Browns a 27-20 lead with 8:14 left in the game.
Their 24-17 lead at the end of the third quarter came from an offense that had gone on five drives of at least nine plays and they had the ball 12 minutes longer in a game the Bengals fell to 0-4 when they score at least 20 points.
The Bengals had a chance to tie the game at 24 early in the fourth quarter, but had to settle for Neil Rackers' 31-yard field goal that closed the gap to 24-20 with 14:37 left in the game.
The Bengals had a second-and-four from the Cleveland 14 after Dillon made six yards out of nothing. But after an incomplete pass, Kitna threw low to wide receiver Ron Dugans that would have been a first down, but Dugans took it off the ground and the Bengals' didn't win the instant replay.
Rackers, who sprained his non-kicking foot in practice on Thursday when he planted on turf that gave way, hit the 31-yarder to go along with a 37-yarder he hit to end the first series of the second half.
That drive was sparked by Dillon's 27-yard sprint off left tackle behind guard Matt O'Dwyer and left tackle Levi Jones, but it stalled when Kitna threw three straight passes, two that were incomplete and one for no gain.
The Bengals had their longest touchdown pass in three years from Kitna to Johnson 47 seconds into the game triggered a first-half shootout that ended with the Browns in a 17-14 lead.
The Bengals' defense didn't offer much resistance in giving up four long drives, the final one lasting just 2:37 and went 58 yards before producing Dawson's 27-yard field goal with 35 seconds left.
Quarterback Tim Couch, behind an offensive line that didn't allow a sack, hit 22 of 35 passes for 242 yards. He was seamless on third down, hitting 11 of 14 passes for 107 yards. One was for a touchdown and nine accounted for first downs as the Browns converted 11 of 18 on third down. The offensive assault included the longest run of Green's career, a 16-yarder.
Kitna (17 of 30 for 258 yards and a 96.2 passer rating) found Houshmandzadeh for a 31-yard throw over the middle on third-and-nine to set up his own three-yard touchdown scramble up the middle after a high shot-gun snap to make it 14-14 in the first two minutes of the second quarter.
The Bengals dodged the injury bullet until the game started. Rackers (ankle), defensive end Vaughn Booker (knee), defensive back Mark Roman (knee), and Bennett (toe) all passed pre-game muster in order to play Sunday.
Couch gave the Browns a 14-7 lead on a 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre' Davis with 2:01 left in the first quarter. Davis got free working one-on-one against rookie free-agent cornerback Reggie Myles, in the game because Jeff Burris, lost for the afternoon with a migraine headache.
On a third-and-six, Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson beat a Browns' defense apparently looking for a short pass and he ran past strong safety Robert Griffith. Kitna threw a beautiful pass over Johnson's left shoulder and the Bengals had their longest scoring connection since Jeff Blake hit Darnay Scott with a 76-yarder against Pittsburgh on Nov. 28, 1999.
The Browns came in trying to stuff Dillon and they did with 30 yards on eight carries in the half. So the Bengals took their shots down field. Kitna completed just five of 13 passes in the half, but they went for 135 yards and Johnson had 87 of them on two catches.
The Bengals thought they had a big pass interference call on Browns cornerback Anthony Henry at the Cleveland 20 in the middle of the second quarter. Johnson ran five yards past Henry, but Kitna underthrew it and the Bengals argued Henry grabbed Johnson's shoulder as he slowed down to adjust to the ball.
Kitna was enraged because when he asked the official what happened, he said the ref told him, "I didn't see it. I got hurt." Kitna writes it off to the Bengals' reputation.
"Unless we start overcoming those kind of things in a consistent manner and win football games without (the calls), we'll get the benefit of the doubt," Kitna said. "But until then, they look at it like, 'It looked kind of funny, but it must not have been the other team.'"
Bengals cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn came up with an interception when he got inside wide receiver Quincy Morgan and he caught Couch's sideline bomb in the first half.
The Browns also got stopped on a 10-play, 62-yard drive when Dawson, after making 15 of his 17 previous field-goal tries, hit the right upright.