BY GEOFF HOBSON
FOXBORO, Mass _ Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson noticed less chaos in quarterback Scott Mitchell's hudde Sunday here at Foxboro Stadium.
So was it any coincidence in the Bengals' 16-13 loss that in place of the second-year Akili Smith, Mitchell:
_Led the Bengals to a season-high 228 yards passing and first 200-yard day since the opener?
_After not getting a catch of 20 yards or more in the past four games by a wide receiver, Mitchell supplied three?
_Rookie wide receiver Peter Warrick caught a season-high seven balls, including a 22-yarder that was his longest since the second game of the season. That's when Warrick caught a 28-yarder, his last 20-plus catch before Sunday.
_Mitchell broke the Bengals' drought of 28 straight quarters without a touchdown pass on a 13-yarder to Warrick.
_Warrick and fellow receivers Craig Yeast and Danny Farmer all had career highs with at least three catches?
"We got some play-action passes down the field," said offensive coordinator Ken Anderson of how the NFL's worst pass offense finally capitalized on the league's third best rush offense. "Our play-action stuff was good today."
In fact, two of those 20-yarders came off play-action and Mitchell was good enough to be named the starter next week if healthy.
But the tragedy for Mitchell after his first start in 24 games is that he's all but out for next Sunday's game against the Steelers with probable torn knee cartilage and could be out for the rest of the season pending a MRI exam.
The Bengals fear he'll need arthroscopic surgery that could take him out two to four weeks. Even more unbelievable is that it happened on the Bengals' last offensive play with 3:23 left when the Pats shot up the middle on a line twist.
"My leg got caught in the ground. I heard a pop. It feels like it's kind of hanging there. I can walk straight ahead, but if I move it side to side there's sharp pain," Mitchell said. "I need to be in. For me, it's like the start of the season and it's a good start. But I really think we can be so much better with time.
"Just timing and working to communicate in pressure situations. If we keep working and building each week, I really feel we can be better next week."
There's 67 reasons the Bengals passed better Sunday with Mitchell, the number of NFL starts for a journeyman on his fourth team.
"The good thing about him today being a veteran is he was able to take on a little bit more because (the Patriots) do a lot more," said Willie Anderson of the Pats' variety of fronts. "Like sight adjustments. We were red hot early on."
Indeed, Mitchell converted eight of the Bengals' first 10 third-down tries. But they went 2-for-7 the rest of the way, thanks to the Pats holding running back Corey Dillon to 32 yards on 15 carries in the second half.
Willie Anderson thought New England sent eight and nine men close to the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter. But strong safety Lawyer Milloy looked to be shadowing Dillon's every move all game.
"They changed their style. It was more of a two-gap defense," Mitchell said. "It looks like there's a hole there and a guy just comes out of nowhere."
Milloy was a huge factor. . . P>**
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He had a hand in the two Bengal turnovers that turned into 10 points. Milloy forced reserve running back Brandon Bennett's fumble and then set up the Patriots' short-lived 13-10 lead in the middle of the third quarter when he picked off Mitchell at the Cincinnati 29.
But not all the lapses from the previous 10 games disappeared. Mitchell said he never should have thrown the ball, even though tight end Tony McGee was open for an instant. In the face of a safety blitz from the weak side, Mitchell said there was miscommunication on the blitz route and he shouldn't have risked the throw.
Still, for the first time this season, the Bengals were able to take advantage of eight men in the box with the passing game. In fact, they nearly got the game breaker on their second-to-last snap of the game.
Mitchell had rookie receiver Ron Dugans wide open on a post pattern, but it appeared left tackle Rod Jones couldn't keep away Pats end Greg Spires and allowed a sack.
"That would have been a big difference," Ken Anderson said.
Willie Anderson said he couldn't understand how the Bengals lost because "it was all clicking." The problem was, they only got 10 points out of three trips in the red zone.
But as Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham observed, at least Mitchell put them in the red zone.
"You can't drill a hole in a young guy's head and give him 10 years of the experience Scott Mitchell has," said Lapham of Smith. "He was decisive, accurate, and the ball was out of there quick. You had a guy who understood more what they were trying to get done offensively and what the defense was doing to combat it.
"It was awareness," Lapham said. "When the cornerbacks had decent coverage, he threw the ball to the back shoulder and the back hip and let the receiver come back for it. Akili's still young. He wouldn't even consider making those throws because the coverage was good. Scott was able to throw it to the back shoulder and hip."
But Mitchell knows how NFL quarterbacks are judged. Someone asked how he graded his first Bengals start.
"In this business, it's pass-fail. If you win, you pass. If you lose, you fail," Mitchell said. "There are no moral victories."