BY GEOFF HOBSON
CLEVELAND _ Running back Corey Dillon's magic continued into the fourth quarter here Sunday with 134 yards on his first 26 carries to give the Bengals a 12-3 lead over the Browns after three quarters.
That put Dillon into a tie with Bears running back Walter Payton with the third most yards ever in back-to-back games with 412 yards. With eight minutes left in the game, he still had a shot at O.J. Simpson's all-time record of 476 set in 1976.
But the Browns began to stiffen, overwhelming the Bengals' offensive line in holding him to nine yards on his next four carries and coaxing another inaccurate day out of rushed Bengals quarterback Akili Smith.
Smith went into the fourth quarter with just seven completions out of 19 passes for 84 yards, and he had been sacked three times.
The Bengals' defense gave the offense a lift late in the third quarter. Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath was flagged for a 38-yard pass interference call on receiver Kevin Johnson and the Browns had the ball on the Bengals 1.
But on third down, linebackers Billy Granville and Armegis Spearman combined to pop running back Travis Prentice in the air to force Phil Dawson's 18-yard field goal.
The Bengals couldn't punch home that second touchdown early in the second half that would have made things difficult for a Cleveland offense that went into the second half without a point in its last eight quarters.
A third-down pass interference call on Browns cornerback Corey Fuller let Cincinnati push the ball to the Browns 14.
But Browns defensive end Courtney Brown, having an active day on the Bengals' right side, rung up Dillon for a three-yard loss.
Then Brown and Keith McKenzie, the other defensive end, chased quarterback Akili Smith from the pocket for a five-yard loss out-of-bounds.
But rookie Neil Rackers hit his longest NFL field goal, a 40-yarder, to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Dillon's one-yard touchdown run three minutes into the second quarter snapped the Bengals' skein of 16 straight quarters without a score on the road.
But the Bengals couldn't take advantage of a defensive effort that held Cleveland to two first downs before the flurry of two-minute drills. The Bengals held the Browns to 103 total yards in the half.
The NFL's last-rated passing game couldn't boost Dillon in the first half. Smith hit on just three of 11 passes in the first half for 39 yards, but he was the victim of at least three dropped passes.
The last one in the first half was a killer. Bengals kicker Neil Rackers set up for a 47-yard field goal with about 2:30 left in the half , but couldn't get a snap before the play clock expired.
Facing a fourth-and-eight from the Browns 34, Smith saw Warrick beat extra defensive back Anthony Malbrough across the middle for a first down and more. But Warrick dropped it.
Dillon picked up where he left off last week on his 278-yard record day, gaining 50 yards on his first 10 carries.
But the big play in the eight-play drive came when Smith hit wide receiver Craig Yeast with a 19-yard pass on 3rd-and-11 that put the ball on the Cleveland 25.
Dillon pushed the ball 14 more yards when he bounced outside to the left, and and a few plays later he swept untouched to the left corner for the Bengals' first road points of the season.
Punter Daniel Pope set up the drive a series earlier with a 33-yard punt that put the Browns and rookie quarterback Spergon Wynn on their own one-yard line.
With the Bengals holding the Browns to two first downs in the game's first 28 minutes and forcing them to switch quarterbacks twice, Cincinnati got the ball back at the Cleveland 43.
Smith took a hit from Courtney Brown after throwing a 21-yard dump pass to running back Brandon Bennett against the blitz and spent the next few moments stretching out his left leg.
But Smith came back on the Bengals' next-to-last series of the first half and rolled out for a first down run.
Smith threw an interception on the Bengals' first series after the touchdown when Warrick deflected his high pass to Browns linebacker Wali Rainer at the Cincinnati 47.
Bengals left tackle John Jackson, who received high marks in the running game last week in his first start of the season, had to leave the game midway through the second quarter with a pulled right hamstring.
The Bengals bid to establish a running game for the second straight week took another blow even before the game started.
Fullback Clif Groce, Dillon's lead blocker, was put on the inactive list with a sore knee. Groce, a key figure in Dillon's record-setting day last week against Denver, didn't practice at all this week after trying to run on it before Thursday's workout.
Which means second-year fullback Nick Williams could have got his first NFL start. Steve Bush, the third tight end, also could have started at fullback because he can block out of that spot.
But Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Anderson chose to start with Dillon alone in the backfield behind a double tight-end set of Tony McGee and Marco Battaglia and used it much of the day.
The Bengals can run the same plays out of a one-back set, but the blocks are harder to execute without a lead blocker.
The Bengals also inactivated defensive tackle Tom Barndt for the second straight. After 92 starts at end, John Copeland makes his second straight start at tackle.
"It was tough for about the first quarter and a half," said Copeland of his tackle debut last week. "The biggest change is everything happens so much quicker because you're closer to the ball."
Rookie cornerback Mark Roman didn't dress for the third straight game with fellow rookie corner Robert Bean getting the nod again in the dime package and special teams.
Dillon got the star treatment when he arrived here at Cleveland Browns Stadium two hours before the game. After Dillon stepped off the team bus, Gus Johnson of CBS-TV taped a quick interview.
In another development Sunday, Bengals President Mike Brown had no comment on broadcast reports that said former Steelers director of football operations Tom Donahoe had expressed interest in working for the Bengals.
Brown has given no indication he will give up his duties as general manager.