Jets ground Bengals

12-16-01, 3:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ The Bengals, who have had the lead for less than 30 minutes since Oct. 28, had the lead most of the day Sunday.

Until tight end Anthony Becht caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde with 6:57 left in the game and Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna threw two interceptions in the final four minutes as the Jets held on for a 15-14 victory here at Giants Stadium.

The Bengals may have lost quarterback Akili Smith for the rest of the year with a strained left hamstring. He is to undergo a MRI Sunday night at Paul Brown Stadium and is definitely out next week in Baltimore. Smith got the nod when Kitna didn't practice all week with a sprained middle finger on his throwing hand.

With the Bengals driving for a shot at a winning field, Kitna overthrew and behind wide receiver Peter Warrick and Jets free safety Damien Robinson intercepted it with four minutes left.

Head coach Dick LeBeau said he thought Kitna's finger bothered him. But Kitna, who finished 10 of 17 for 93 yards, said the injury was not a factor on the interceptions.

The Bengals had another shot when Jets kicker John Hall missed a 34-yard field goal try with 1:15 left in the game but Kitna overthrew wide receiver Darnay Scott and linebacker James Farrior picked it off on the next to last play of the game.

It was a tale of two drives and two quarterbacks for the Bengals.

After jumping to a 7-0 lead on a 20-play, 12-minute scoring drive on their first possession of the game with Smith at the controls, the Bengals took a 14-3 lead with 1:57 left in the third quarter when Kitna led a 13-play drive that took nearly eight minutes and culminated on running back Corey Dillon's three-yard touchdown run.

Smith left the game for good midway through the second quarter with a strained left hamstring, but Kitna hit his first six passes in the third quarter and yet it was all Dillon in the third as he headed into the fourth quarter with 78 yards on 19 carries and finished with 85 on 22 carries.

Dillon took a pass for 17 yards and on the next play ripped off a 20-yard run, his longest run since Oct. 28. He bulled for a five-yard gain on third-and-one to give him 1,000 yards for the season, caught a seven-yard pass over the middle to convert a third-and-5, and then scored from three yards out.

The Bengals did a good job on the Jets Pro Bowl running back, holding Curtis Martin to 78 yards on 24 carries for the game and they could have sealed the game on safety Chris Carter's interception and the Bengals leading, 14-3, early in the fourth quarter.

But Carter dropped the ball and Testaverde, as he did all day on killing the Bengals on third down, came back on the next play to complete a 27-yard pass to Kevin Swayne in front of cornerback Mark Roman on third and ten. Testaverde converted six passes of at least third and ten on the day. Then Testaverde, 17 of 28 for 196, hit a one-yard flip to tight end James Dearth for the Jets' first touchdown and when he couldn't do the same thing on the two-point conversion, the Bengals had a 14-9 lead with 12:50 left in the game.

In an effort to slow down the Cincinnati pass rush, the Jets at times doubled rookie end Justin Smith with fullback Richie Anderson helping left tackle Jason Fabini. The Jets allowed no sacks and converted eight of fourteen third-down tries.

The Bengals rode the quarterback switch for their longest scoring drive of the season when they hogged their first series for 20 plays and a dozen minutes.

But Smith had to leave the game when he injured his left hamstring scrambling out of the pocket midway through the second quarter.

The Jets then kept the ball for all but the final 18 seconds of the first half, when they got a 24-yard field goal from Hall that pulled New York within 7-3 at halftime.

It was a tough break for Smith, the Bengals' erstwhile franchise quarterback who looked sharp in his first start in more than a year. He accounted for 50 of the 81 yards in the drive that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 1:56 left in the first quarter.

Smith hit all four of his passes for 35 yards and ran for 15 more. Dillon pounded 10 times for 34 yards in the drive and scored from one yard out on a terrific second effort play, bulling out of the reach of defensive end Rick Lyle and tackle Steve Martin behind the left side of the Bengals' line.

Smith personally converted three third-down plays. He rolled out on a third-and four to hit wide receiver Chad Johnson for nine yards to the Jets 40 and got another one when he scrambled for six yards up the middle on third-and-five to the Jets 16. Then on third-one from the Jets 7, Smith made a quick read over the middle and hit tight end Kirk McMullen for his first NFL catch to the New York 3.

The Bengals opted to sit Kitna with a sprained middle finger on his throwing hand. Kitna had said he could play if the Bengals decided not to bench him. He was the first player to greet Smith after the team's longest drive of the season and second touchdown drive of the season on their first series of the game.

The Bengals, who came into the game leading just 27:21 in the last five weeks, had their first half-time lead since the 30-13 loss in Jacksonville Nov. 11.

New York took advantage of several big plays when the Bengals had Testaverde in a hole. On a second-and-15, he hooked up with Martin on a 27-yard screen pass and wide receiver Wayne Chrebet converted a third-and-6 when he caught one in front of cornerback Artrell Hawkins after Hawkins slipped.

But Roman forced Hall's field goal when he blew up a receiver screen to Chrebet for a loss after beating Richie Anderson's block.

The Hall-of-Fame matchup between Dillon and Martin was a first half wash. Dillon had 38 yards on 13 carries and Martin had 34 on 13.

Kitna, who gets at least $1 million if he plays in 80 percent of he team's snaps this season, opened the second half for the Bengals.

The offensive line was intact for Smith's re-debut, with center Rich Braham (shoulder) and right tackle Willie Anderson (ankle) getting the pre-game nod. But starting left outside linebacker Steve Foley (back) got scratched in favor of the local Canute Curtis of Amityville, N.Y.

Smith says a lot of water has gone under the bridge since Nov. 13, 2000. That's when he was benched in favor of Scott Mitchell with the Bengals mired at 2-8, triggering a period of erratic off-the-field behavior that took away from his preparation and cost him some locker-room credibility.

Smith has made an effort to win back his teammates and he knows he needs them.

"Once your identity starts to go down, man, it's just hard to get the trust of your teammates back, the organization," Smith said the week before the Bengals came to New York. "The buzz around the locker room is that I don't do the things I used to do. I think it's trickling around to the coaches." starting to notice and that's start of going in the right direction."

Smith agrees with some of his mates that a healthy slice of humble pie has changed his outlook on things.

"After what he went through, it either humbles you or eats you up," said Anderson, the offense's captain. "It either humbles you or you become Ryan Leaf. As far as his personality goes, I think you can see that. He's not thinking about what everybody is saying he has to be. I'm not saying he's a 100 percent changed, but he acts a lot different than last year. I think he knows more about life. He's not hanging with the same guys."

Smith said his arrest on a DUI charge in his hometown of San Diego shortly after last season woke him up. He was acquitted, but he said the incident got him thinking.

"Like Kenny says, you have to live the quarterback's life," said Smith of Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson. "That made me realize. Everytime, people are looking and saying, 'Akili, you've just been a messup with this and that.' It was hard.

"I think I've been humbled big time," said Smith of his three-year career. "It's been the most humbling experience of my entire life."

Anderson knows his mates have to crank up their play for a young quarterback who is 3-12 as a starter and hasn't thrown for more than 183 yards in his last 10 starts to avoid more of the same.

"We have to help him," Anderson said. "We have to pick up our play around him. The offensive line has to give him more protection than he thinks he has. We have to make the tough catches."

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