12-28-03, 3:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals were supposed to run to their first winning season in 13 years behind the tag-team of Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson here in Sunday's regular-season finale. But the Browns short-circuited the buzz of anticipation at packed Paul Brown Stadium with a crushing combo of their own as Cleveland threatened to end the season in disaster.
Cleveland took a 13-7 lead into halftime just when it appeared the Bengals were going to re-gain the lead, but a mental gaffe by quarterback Jon Kitna cost Cincinnati at least a try for a field goal as time ran out.
The Bengals had a first down on the Cleveland 3 with 39 seconds left, but Dillon lost three yards on a sweep, and Kitna was forced to throw the ball away on the next play to set up third-and-goal with 10 seconds left. But the clock ran out as Kitna sat in the pocket looking for receivers before taking a sack.
It turned out that Kitna, who struggled against a Browns' blitz on 11 of 17 passing in the half for 92 yards , couldn't overcome two offensive pass interference penalties on wide receiver Chad Johnson in that drive. The last one came in the end zone on a push off on cornerback Leigh Bodden, and when Johnson had to be attended on the field for an injury, the Bengals lost their last timeout with 50 seconds left, and Johnson finished the half with just two catches for 19 yards.
Dillon and Johnson did get it going, but it was briefly and only on the game's first drive when they split six carries for 50 yards. Dillon, playing to to the crowd after playing with the Browns, ripped off runs of 15 and 21, and Johnson put the Bengals up, 7-0, just four minutes into the game on a five-yard touchdown run.
But Dillon (39 yards) and Johnson (26) each ended up carrying just six times each in the half as rookie Lee Suggs and little-used Jamel White went off for the Browns. The rest of the half belonged to the Bengals' continuing defensive problems, this time on the ground against a team far from the NFL running elite. The Browns, ranked next-to-last in league rushing by averaging 94 yards per game, doubled that in stunning fashion in the half.
At least early on, the Bengals had no answer for a patchwork Cleveland offensive line. With left tackle Barry Stokes (ankle) out, second-year man Joaquin Gonzalez, a seventh-round pick out of Miami of Florida, made his third start of the season at left tackle and free-agent rookie Enoch DeMar his second at left guard.
Suggs capped off the onslaught with a 78-yard cutback that caught the Bengals flat-footed for a touchdown that gave Cleveland the 13-7 lead with 2:06 left in the half. Suggs started to his right, cut back to his left and had nobody near him after cornerback Artrell Hawkins missed a diving tackle and safety Rogers Beckett couldn't catch him running down the right sideline.
Suggs, who a career-high 68 yards last week, had just rung up the longest run against Cincinnati since the Raiders' Bo Jackson ran for 88 yards in that last playoff season of 1990. But Suggs' 117 yards in the half was making it real hard for the Bengals to get back to those playoffs.
The Browns had failed to rush for 100 yards in six of the previous eight games and White came in averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. But White pounded for30 yards on four carries in their first drive to set up Brett Conway's 42-yard field goal that cut the Bengals' lead to 7-3 with 6:20 left in the first quarter.
Then Suggs got his first work on the next series, slashing for 36 yards in spearheading a grim, tone-setting 14-play drive that consumed nearly nine minutes. The only way the Browns didn't come out of it with any points is they opted to go for it on fourth-and-one-from the Bengals 15, and Couch's roll-out pass to tight end Darnell Sanders in the end zone was in desperation with Hawkins on the coverage.
But Couch had his way on the next drive, helped out again in the running game at the Bengals' right side. White churned out 11 yards and wide receiver Dennis Northcutt popped a reverse for 23 yards to set up another 42-yard field goal by Conway, this one with 5:10 left in the half and cut the Bengals' lead to 7-6.
Wide receiver Peter Warrick (knee) and left guard Eric Steinbach (thigh) were in the starting lineup despite a limited week of practice. Both missed last week's game in St. Louis, but are in the lineup for a regular-season finale the Bengals hoped would yield their first winning record in 13 years. The 8-7 Bengals, who need a Ravens' loss in Baltimore against the Steelers Sunday night, are also shooting for their first six-game winning streak ever at PBS and their first at home since the 1988 AFC champions went 8-0 at Riverfront Stadium.
Warrick played well right out of the box, making a catch on the Bengals' first play of the game, and then making the 15-yard catch that put the ball on the Browns 3 late in the half.
A beautiful Indian Summer day greeted the Bengals at PBS with pre-game balmy temperatures leaping up to about 55 degrees. They appeared loose and relaxed Chad Johnson tried to sing a few bars of the national anthem into the field microphone and cornerback Reggie Myles played atch wth fans in the stands as he stood in the end zone.
Dillon, playing amid speculation it's his last game with the Bengals, gave his traditional "V," salute. He and Johnson were supposed to be a huge factor against the Browns. For the first time this season, head coach Marvin Lewis introduced both as starters before the game.
The Cleveland defense has allowed running backs Shaun Alexander, Marshall Faulk, Clinton Portis, and Jamal Lewis to break 100 yards in the last four games on five yards per carry, and Johnson has four straight 100-yard games at PBS.
Johnson broke two plus 40-yard runs two weeks ago in the 41-38 victory over San Francisco two weeks ago, and the Browns have been vulnerable to the big play on the ground. A quarter of their rush yards have been surrendered on just six plays, five by Lewis.
Inactive for the Bengals were cornerback Dennis Weathersby, running back Kenny Watson, defensive tackle Langston Moore, offensive lineman Alex Sulfsted, center Thatcher Szalay, tackle Scott Kooistra, defensive end Elton Patterson, and Carson Palmer was the third quarterback.