1-7-02, 5:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NASHVILLE, Tenn. _ He gained 119 less yards than his career year and failed to average four yards per carry (3.87) for the first time in his life.
But after the Bengals' 23-21 victory here Sunday, was there any doubt that running back Corey Dillon had just finished the best season of what is shaping up as a Hall-of-Fame career?
"He got snubbed for the Pro Bowl, but he proved it again today that he's the best back in the league," said fullback Lorenzo Neal.
And after Dillon's defense got done with stopping Titans running back Eddie George from getting a 1,000-yard season, Dillon goes into next season with a chance to become just the fourth man in history to rush for 1,000 yards in his first six seasons after ending '01 at 1,315.
"If we didn't win this one, I would have been sick. It would have been a long offseason," Dillon said. "Especially for me. We had to win it."
At the very least, Dillon proved for the 16th time he is the Bengals' Most Valuable Player this season. He scored two touchdowns, the last one with 1:18 left in the first half on a 34-yard draw up the middle that pulled the Bengals even at 14 after trailing, 14-0. Nine of his 13 touchdowns either tied the game or put the Bengals ahead. He scored 78 of Cincinnati's 226 points, nearly one third of the total and four more than kicker Neil Rackers.
He may have gained just 3.9 yards per carry. But the Bengals played defenses this season that gave up just 3.7 heading into Sunday's game. In the last three games against three of the NFL's top five run defenses, he averaged four yards per carry after nicking the Titans for 87 yards on 22 carries on Sunday.
So how ironic would it have been if the one memory of Dillon this year had been throwing an interception? It nearly happened because with 6:55 left in the game and the Bengals
trailing, 21-20, they called an option pass to the right on third and one from the Titans 1. Even though Dillon had his right pinky taped since dislocating it three weeks ago and it was his first NFL pass.
It turned into Tennessee linebacker Greg Favors' first career interception when Dillon couldn't get any air under it to wide-open tight end Kirk McMullen in the end zone.
"I was surprised when the play came in because of my finger," Dillon said. "But you have to run what's called. The ball didn't feel right in my hand. I had a hard time even carrying the ball. But we got the ball back and won and that was fortunate."
Dillon's 34-yard burst up the middle came on the play after quarterback Jon Kitna hooked up with wide receiver Chad Johnson for a 28-yard run-and-catch out of the two-minute drill.
"They wanted me to huddle, but I saw their safety had gotten hurt and they were kind of slow and winded and getting ready for a huddle," Kitna said. "They were calling for a huddle, so I just waved them off and went to the line and called a draw play and I saw it from behind.
"It looked like Corey was the only guy on the field of the 22 guys out there that was going full speed. He looked like he was a seeing obstacles, little bags to run around."
Since the Titans like to play their safeties close to the line of scrimmage, the emphasis during the week in practice had been to try and make them miss. When Kitna called, "Express," Dillon's first urge once he got past the line was to run over Aric Morris.
"So I said, 'Let me try to make a move,'" Dillon said, "so I tried to make a move and it worked. I did a right to left kind of thing. I got past him, dipped outside a corner and either (receivers) Peter Warrick or Danny Farmer made a great block on the other corner. We got them off guard. Everybody was standing around looking and we were running the play. We kind of torched them."
It was the Bengals' first win over Tennessee since Dillon rushed for a then rookie-record 246 yards on Dec. 4, 1997. So he wasn't exactly sentimental that the Bengals got a win for Neal in the former Titans' Adelphia Coliseum homecoming.
"Happy for him? I'm happy for me," Dillon said. "We haven't beaten them since, what? '97?"
On his second carry of the game, Dillon thought his knee didn't touch the ground and that he had gained about 15 yards after popping up from the initial hit down the Titans sideline. But it was ruled a four-yard gain. As Dillon objected, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher patted him on the back and joked, "Come on Dillon, you're hurting our corners." Neal has told Dillon how much Fisher emphasizes stopping him when the Titans prepare for the Bengals.
"I know it's, 'Stop 28,'" and they always play me tough and they're good," Dillon said. "It's good when you can run it on them."
Dillon reiterated what he said all year. He's disappointed with the record and he thinks his numbers could have been better for a variety of reasons. But Sunday gave him a lift.
"It's encouraging," Dillon said. "We stuck together and got the win. I'm proud of the way we finished. It's something to build on."