BY GEOFF HOBSON
CLEVELAND _ It was good the Bengals won their second straight game Sunday, 12-3, here against the Browns.
Plus, it was good running back Corey Dillon went past Bears running back Walter Payton again with the third most yards ever in back-to-back games with 415 after churning out 137 on 27 carries before 73,118 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
It was bad the Bengals couldn't complete a pass in the game's final 14 minutes and have won the last two weeks despite passing for less than 100 yards combined.
And it was ugly they had to do it with Dillon and quarterback Akili Smith limping, wide receiver Peter Warrick fighting flu-like symptoms, and left tackle John Jackson lost in the second quarter with a pulled hamstring.
Indeed, Sunday was good, bad, and ugly. The kind of game the Bengals didn't win until Dick LeBeau became head coach last month.
"When 11 guys have resolve, it's really hard to beat us," said defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, who was referring to the defense's goal line stand in the middle of the third quarter but could have been talking about the whole gritty day between teams now 2-6 who needed this game so badly.
"It's kind of old school, but getting tougher," said Gibson of the Bengals' budding personality under LeBeau. "We know it's not going to be pretty. We put ourselves in a hole. We're getting tougher. . . with our practice habits. It's not that we didn't think we could win before. But we definitely expect to win."
The Bengals' second road victory against a non-expansion team in October since 1991 belonged to Gibson's defense. If Dillon committed NFL history with 278 rushing yards last week, the defense committed team history Sunday.
It was the first time the club held a team to only a field goal since Dave Shula's head coaching debut in 1992, a 21-3 win in Seattle. And it was the first time since that last October road win against an established team in Pittsburgh in 1995 27-9 the Bengals didn't allow a touchdown.
"In the NFL on the road, you have to bring three things," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Your running game, your defense and your special teams. . .In the past, we might have been throwing the ball a lot more and left the defense on the field a lot quicker. But we kept the team moving, giving the guys a chance to rest and moved the chains at key times."
The Browns held Dillon to 38 yards in the second half on 13 carries, but the Bengals had the ball for nearly 19 of the second half's 30 minutes. Throw in the goal-line stand, rookie kicker Neil Rackers' career-long 39-yard field goal and punter Daniel Pope's four kicks inside the Browns' 20, and there were Anderson's three traveling companions.
But it was the defense that offered the five-star play. After Bengals cornerback Rodney Heath was flagged for a 38-yard pass interference call on receiver Kevin Johnson midway through the third quarter, the ball was on the Bengals 1 with Cleveland trailing, 10-0.
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.
"That was the big play of the game," said Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes. "That took the air out of them. You could see it."
With the Bengals leading, 10-3, midway through the fourth quarter, Bengals defensive end Vaughn Booker forced a safety when Browns left tackle Roman Oben was called for holding in his own end zone.
The Browns then turned to rocket arm rookie quarterback Spergon Wynn. But after he drove the Browns to the Cincinnati 41, the Bengals' Tom Carter got the first interception of the season for the Cincinnati cornerbacks when he cut in front of receiver Kevin Johnson on the sideline with 3:24 left in the game.
"We've had some ugly losses this year," Carter said. "I'll take an ugly win any day."
After completing just seven of 20 passes for 84 yards and getting sacked four times, a somber Smith remained disappointed with the passing game.
But like Anderson said, they can't take away the fact that he won a road game in the NFL and played hurt enough that he said he took a cortisone shot for his knee at halftime. It had been hyperextended on a hit by Browns defensive end Courtney Brown midway through the first quarter.
"(Smith) told me, 'I'm not coming out of this game for anything," Anderson said. "That was big for him not coming out and playing hurt like that."
In sticking with gritty resourcefulness as the theme of the day, Smith said, "It was real important (to stay in). Make a statement. Let these guys know that I'm not going to quit. Play through the pain and that's what it's all about.
"I'm pretty sure everyone is tremendously happy, but I'm not happy with the way we threw the ball. It's a win, but I'm still not happy. . .Anytime you throw under 50 percent and finally make some throws and guys drop the ball, it's just tough we're fighting to get on the same page. I'm happy the running game is on the same page."
The Bengals dropped three of Smith's first nine passes, including one by Warrick that might have gone for a touchdown.
"That's all right," said Smith, who admitted he had trouble pushing off his left knee. "There have been times guys have been open and I missed them. In the first half, I felt pretty. I felt I was on."
Dillon bruised his calf some time in the first half, which may have hampered his bid to overtake O.J. Simpson's all-time record of 476 rushing yards in back-to-back games. . .
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But his one-yard touchdown run three minutes into the second quarter snapped the Bengals' skein of 16 straight quarters without a score on the road.
"There's a different attitude. We're out there fighting," Dillon said. "I think they didn't want me to risk getting hurt any more, so they took me out in the last five minutes."
The Bengals last dropped pass in the first half was a killer. 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.
"Don't tell me that," said Warrick when told he might have gone all the way. "I wish I had caught that ball."
But the big play in the eight-play drive was a pass. It came when Smith hit wide receiver Craig Yeast with a 19-yarder 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.
Pope set up the drive a series earlier with a 33-yard punt that put the Browns and 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 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.
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 meant 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 deactivated defensive tackle Tom Barndt for the second straight game. After 92 starts at end, John Copeland made 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 the stadium hours before the game. After Dillon stepped off the team bus, Gus Johnson of CBS-TV taped a quick interview.