11-18-01, 4:15 p.m.
Updated: 11-18-01, 7:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals' post-bye playoff push still hasn't surfaced Sunday after the Titans pushed them to the brink in a 20-7 loss at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium that was listless enough to stir the hackles of team leaders.
"If it doesn't mean anything to you, get out," said heated defensive captain Takeo Spikes, pretty much repeating what he told teammates in a "It has to mean something to you," plea behind closed doors after their fifth loss in seven games. "Please leave. We've worked too hard as a whole."
Asked if there were such players, Spikes said, "Yeah," and offensive captain Willie Anderson agreed with, " During the week, our focus has to be better. Our effort is there. We can't seem to carry over our play on the practice field to the game field. I don't know if these guys are scared or what. It's crazy, man."
It was a game that got crazy quick before the third straight PBS sellout at 63,865, the first trio of sellouts in the new stadium and first at home since Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Denver at Cinergy Field in 1998.
The Bengals got put back on their heels immediately on Derrick Mason's 101-yard kick-off return to open the game. The game careened into halftime with the Titans leading, 10-7, after Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau eschewed Neil Rackers' field-goal tries of 49-, 49- and 46-yards on fourth down and got no points out of it a week after Rackers hit a career-long 52-yarder.
Then Tennessee buried the Bengals in a second half in which Cincinnati quarterback Jon Kitna lost the ball on two interceptions and a fumble, while running back Corey Dillon either lost yardage or got nothing on seven of his last nine carries to finish with just 38 yards on 17 attempts.
In fact, Titans quarterback Steve McNair won what was supposed to the Pro Bowl showdown between Dillon and Titans running back Eddie George. McNair, who didn't practice all week with a bone bruise on his throwing thumb, ended up with more rushing yards than George, 68-61.
"It's like Takeo said," Anderson said. "They were hungrier than we were. We have to get back that hunger we had when the season began."
They are setting the table for the NFL playoff feast and the Bengals are struggling to get in the door. They
have lost two straight in the AFC Central to fall into a tie with Tennessee at 4-5 and are headed to Cleveland next week for a game against a 5-4 Browns club fresh off a sweep of Super Bowl champion Baltimore. But the Ravens (6-4) and Steelers are still in command.
"We're running out of time," said Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal. "If you want to be a contender, you have to perform in these games. As the Bengals, we want to be considered a good team. You can't pray for the rain and then complain about the mud. You say you want to be in that position."
The Bengals were in position to score when their first drive reached the Tennessee 32, but LeBeau called for Rackers' to "pooch," kick and it rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
Then, early in the second quarter and the Bengals down, 10-7, LeBeau called for punter Nick Harris when they reached the Titan 32 again. Harris did drive Tennessee back to its own nine. Then with 3:09 left in the first half, Dillon got stuffed on a fourth-and-one at the Titans 29.
"I talked (to LeBeau) at halftime and I said to him, 'Coach, I don't know what your reason is, but before the game, we were hitting those and I just want to let you know you can feel safe putting me out there for those,'" Rackers said. "I think Coach just wanted to play field position because Tennessee hasn't been scoring many points and that's his decision. I sure would have liked to (have) hit them."
LeBeau said he didn't have the benefit of knowing the Bengals wouldn't get close again.
"We were one touchdown behind at the time and I thought we would play their offense well and I wanted to keep them back in their own territory," LeBeau said. "That's why we went with the fake field goal early in the game. . .Later on, it was a three-point game, and we had punted them inside the nine-yard line. If someone would have been kind enough to tell me we wouldn't get back down there again to kick a field goal, I probably would have gone ahead and kicked a field goal there. The way we went down and scored to bring the score closer to 10-7, I thought we were driving again and we just had some mishaps to take us out of field-goal range."
McNair's two big runs kept alive the game-sealing drive that took up 6:49 of the fourth quarter and resulted in Joe Nedney's 37-yard field goal with just under three minutes left in the game.
Late in the game, McNair broke a 13-yard run on 3rd-and-12 on a quarterback draw, cutting past Spikes for about the final seven yards. When safety Darryl Williams was called for unneccesary roughness after the play, it was done.
Earlier in the second half, one play after sprinting up the middle to get past the Bengals pass rush for 19 yards, McNair floated a 28-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Dyson after Dyson beat cornerback Mark Roman down the right sideline. As defensive end Vaughn Booker smacked McNair, McNair lofted it where Dyson could slide and catch it in the end zone despite a pass interference call on Roman with 2:06 left in the third quarter.
But it was a punchless offense that dug the Bengals the hole. As hot as Kitna was in the first half (12 for 18 passing for 127 yards), he was frozen in the second half against a Titans pass defense rated worst in the NFL in finishing the half 11-for-24 for 107 yards and two interceptions.
Kitna underthrew wide receiver Darnay Scott for cornerback Samari Rolle's interception on the first series of the second half.
"I take full responsibility for the second half," Kitna said. "But that play took the air out of us. It was a risk I shouldn't have taken at that point. They were in a deep zone and I got too greedy. I don't think we ever recovered from it."
Then with 9:45 left in the game and the Bengals getting a life after cornerback Artrell Hawkins caused a George fumble at the Tennessee 47, Kitna threw to wide receiver Peter Warrick in double coverage and got intercepted by linebacker Keith Bulluck.
That interception came on third-and-long, courtesy of Titans end Jevon Kearse's 10-yard sack of Kitna. Kearse went around the outside of tight end Tony McGee lined up outside of left tackle Richmond Webb.
And for the second straight week, the Bengals' offensive line offered no holes for Dillon. At one point, Dillon had 33 yards on his first eight carries, but nine for five the rest of the way.
Dillon, who lost yardage or got nothing on the last four times he ran the ball in the half, lost a yard on fourth-and-1 from the Titans 29 late in the first half. The Bengals ran a toss sweep behind Anderson and Neal, but middle linebacker Randall Godfrey disrupted the slow developing play.
"They called the right defense," Anderson said. "They overloaded to that side and there were too many guys to block."
Kitna came out sharp and had two long touchdown passes dropped in the end zone by Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh on the first two series.
With Warrick sitting out with a bruised right thigh, third receiver Ron Dugans responded with four catches of 44 yards that included a touchdown. Warrick returned in the second half, but finished with just 29 yards on three catches.
It took the Titans just 17 seconds to swipe the home crowd intensity from the Bengals when Mason raced 101 yards with the opening kickoff as Tennessee leaped to 10-0 lead in the game's first 10 minutes.
The Bengals five-minute lead in time of possession and 34-yard lead in offense in the first half was negated by seven Bengals' penalties for 55 yards.
The Bengals rallied to 10-7 with 1:06 left in the first quarter Dugans stretched for a diving 10-yard touchdown catch on third-and-5.
The big play in the drive came when Neal caught a 12-yard pass and the Bengals got 15 more yards on Godfrey's face-mask penalty.
The Bengals could have gone up 14-10 on the next series when Booker and tackle Oliver Gibson forced McNair to hurry an interception to Hawkins at the Cincinnati 30.
But on the first play, Warrick lost 14 yards on a reverse when tackle Joe Salave'a blew it up from the backside on the right side of the line. Then with Dillon getting 33 yards on his first eight carries and the Bengals driving to the Titans 15, right guard Mike Goff was called for a hold and for the second time in the game, the Bengals passed up a 49-yard field-goal attempt.
In the second quarter, the Bengals defense offered back-to-back three-and-outs, once when George got stuffed on third-and-one and once when the Titans got the ball at midfield.
But another holding call on Goff stopped another drive.
The Bengals' kick-off team, next to last in the AFC in allowing field position, let Mason field a low kick and roar up the right sideline untouched until he shook off Rackers.
Nedney saved a touchdown on the next play when he dragged down the Bengals' Curtis Keaton at midfield. Instead of attempting a 49-yard field goal, Rackers tried a quick punt that rolled into the end zone. The Titans then overcame two holding calls when McNair hit his first five passes for 63 yards to get Nedney's 40-yard field goal with about five minutes left in the first quarter. Spikes knocked down McNair's sixth pass to set up the field goal.
Even two hours before kickoff, Bengals rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson insisted he could play. But the Bengals, who were looking for more improvement from his broken left collarbone during practice this past week, decided to inactivate him for the fourth straight game.
With Johnson out and tight end Marco Battaglia shelved for the season after Saturday's appendectomy, the Bengals went into the game against the Titans without two of their better third-down receivers. Because Battaglia got sick in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Bengals virtually had no chance to implement changes into their game plan.
Tight end Kirk McMullen, signed from the practice squad, made his NFL debut, but the Bengals didn't use as many double tight end sets as usual. McMullen is seen as a comparable blocker to Battaglia, but isn't as accomplished a receiver.