9-30-01, 7:30 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
SAN DIEGO _ The Bengals' fragile chemistry of few turnovers, a solid running game, and stingy defense blew up Sunday in the second half here at Qualcomm Stadium as the Chargers took a 28-7 lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter and held on to make it 28-14.
After gaining just 19 yards in the first half, Chargers rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson tore through the middle of the defense for runs of 23 and 19 yards in a drive he finished off with his third touchdown of the game on a two-yard burst that gave him 106 yards on 19 carries and San Diego the three-touchdown lead. Tomlinson finished with 107 yards on 21 carries in what head coach Dick LeBeau called his team's worst effort against the run in two years.
"I never thought that would happen to us like that," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "I certainly didn't think a rookie would get 100 yards on us."
Defensive tackle Oliver Gibson said, "They've got a smart running back. He realized (in the second half) the cutback was there and he took it."
After running just 21 plays in a 7-7 first half, the Chargers reeled off 18 in the second half's first 10 minutes during two touchdown drives. The second score came courtesy of the Bengals' third of four turnovers of the day and resulted in a short 40-yard drive capped by Tomlinson's four-yard run behind fullback Fred McCrary's block on Spikes that made it 21-7 with 4:44 left in the third quarter.
It was set up on Bengals running back Corey Dillon's fumble as he broke outside and tried to shift the ball from his inside arm - his left - to his right. But Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison stripped the ball as made the transfer.
"I thought I could make something happen, but he made a play," Dillon said. "If they want to put this one on me, they can. I made a mistake, and they got seven points."
The Bengals 2-0 season turned 2-1 and ugly in the fourth quarter as the Qualcomm crowd of 56,048 rocked in anticipation of the Chargers' 3-0 start. Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson gave up a sack to defensive end Marcellus Wiley in Wiley's San Diego debut, Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau laid out running back Brandon Bennett twice in the open field, Dillon found the going tough in gaining just 46 yards on 15 carries and cornerback Mark Roman got ejected on a Bengals' onsides kick.
The Bengals scored with 1:48 left in the game on quarterback Jon Kitna's seven-yard pass to Peter Warrick, but it was a footnote.
"Playing the Chargers, you have to get to them early," Kitna said. "We had our chances early, and they're a smart defense, and they adjusted."
Kitna hit just 18 of 32 passes, could manage just 135 yards, and he threw his first three interceptions of the season.
Early in the second half, Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie took advantage of the Benga1s' soft pass coverage and cashed a 55-yard drive in just 4:28 that broke the 7-7 half-time tie. Flutie finished with just 133 yards passing on 12 of 19 throwing.
But plays like a 28-yard completion to wide receiver Jeff Graham on a shallow crossing pattern in that first scoring drive of the second half hurt.
The Bengals forged a 7-7 halftime lead here with 24 seconds left when rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson caught his first NFL touchdown pass with 24 seconds left.
Johnson caught an eight-yard fade pattern over Chargers cornerback Ryan McNeil in the left corner of the end zone as the Bengals capped a drive that was all Dillon.
The drive was set up by another Bengals rookie first when defensive end Justin Smith rung up his first NFL sack when he bolted between left tackle Damon McIntosh and left guard Raleigh Roundtree to nail Flutie for a 13-yard loss.
After a shanked punt by the Chargers' Darren Bennett to the San Diego 47, Dillon caught an 11-yard pass and busted a draw for 11 more yards in finishing the half with 46 yards rushing on 10 carries.
The Bengals outgained San Diego in the first half, 139-77, and had the ball for about 18 of the half's 30
minutes. And although Flutie completed seven of 10 passes for 73 yards in the half, the Bengals' defense held San Diego on four of five third downs.
But the Bengals couldn't come up with more than seven points because the air-tight ball security that has marked their 2-0 start faltered when Kitna threw his first two interceptions of the season and killed another drive when he fumbled a handoff.
Flutie made the second interception stand up when he hit wide receiver Curtis Conway for a 19-yard touchdown through a zone defense to give the Chargers a 7-0 lead with 10:43 left in the first half.
Strong safety Cory Hall didn't turn around as Conway caught Flutie's eighth pass of the game. It was Flutie's seventh completion as he racked up some yards against a Bengals' secondary that was playing off Conway and Graham.
The Chargers only had to go 41 yards for the game's first touchdown, because that's where Seau caught rookie cornerback Tay Cody's tip. Cody waited and broke up Kitna's sideline pass to receiver Darnay Scott.
Kitna's first interception wasn't his fault. On third-and-eight, he threw a strike to Johnson over the middle for more than a first down, but Johnson let the ball bounce high off his hands and McNeil grabbed his NFL-leading fourth interception to start the Chargers at their own 40.
The Chargers couldn't advantage when Wade Richey missed a 38-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter on a drive that Bengals outside linebacker Steve Foley stalled when he didn't bite on Flutie's play fake and dumped McCrary for a seven-yard loss on a pass.
The Bengals and Chargers, the worst teams in the AFC last year when it came to turnover differential, each got fumbles from their new quarterbacks on the first series. But they did recover.
Kitna hit his first four passes for 37 yards as the Bengals took the opening kickoff 51 yards in 10 plays. The feature play was Johnson's first NFL catch, a leaping 20-yarder that converted a third-and-12.
But Kitna fumbled a handoff to Dillon at the Chargers 39 on third-and-three, and punter Nick Harris pinned San Diego on its own six. Flutie then fell on his bobbled snap on third-and-one.
When backup free safety Darryl Williams' foot sprain didn't respond before Sunday's game, the Bengals decided to deactivate him for the first time in his six seasons with the club.
With Williams and backup rookie linebacker Riall Johnson (rib) inactive, the Bengals went into a game with more than four wide receivers for the first time this season. Danny Farmer and rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh celebrated returns to their home of southern California by dressing for the first time in '01.
Houshmandzadeh, a seventh-round pick, hasn't been available since he bruised his foot in the Aug. 10 pre-season game in Detroit. He could be used to spell Peter Warrick on punt returns during a typical sunny, sweltering Mission Valley afternoon that began with temperatures hovering at about 80 degrees.
Farmer could give Scott a blow at the split receiver spot and Johnson can relieve Warrick at flanker in a two-receiver set.
Wiley, the Chargers' high-priced off-season acquisition, made his San Diego debut in a start at left defensive end. It's been a little more than three weeks since Wiley broke his foot and had a screw inserted.
The Bengals arrived at Qualcomm Stadium trying to rid themselves of the hex that has hung over them for 11 years. They are trying to go 3-0 and win in California, both for the first time since they went to the 1990 playoffs.
And were the Bengals a victory away from a "Sports Illustrated," cover? The game between the teams who are each 28-53 since 1996 and are now suddenly 2-0 is the only game SI is staffing this week. NFL writer Mike Silver spent part of Saturday talking to some players before and after their meetings.