12-30-02, 3 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y _ Bills fullback Larry Centers gave Lorenzo Neal the shirt off his back Sunday, but Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna couldn't get his $1.65 million incentive for next season.
And Kitna thought all the attention on his march to 80 percent of the team's snaps this season hurt.
"I didn't really enjoy that at all," Kitna said. "I thought it really took the focus away from this game for us as a team. It's unfortunate."
Centers, the Bills' perennial Pro Bowl fullback, gave his No. 37 to Neal after Sunday's game in tribute of Neal's trip to the Pro Bowl, a place where Centers has been three times as receiving back in both conferences.
And, because Neal asked.
"Undoubtedly he's going into the Hall of Fame," Neal said.
While No. 41 got No. 37, Kitna couldn't get No. 61, the number of
snaps he needed to reach his incentive by participating in 80 percent of the team's snaps. He finished six shy with 55 for the game and 842 for the season. The Bengals finished with 1,054 plays, which comes out to 79.88614 percent of the plays and there has been no indication from Bengals President Mike Brown that he was going to round up the number.
It wasn't exactly Maris chasing Ruth for 61, but at 2-14, something had to be written about and Kitna didn't like the way it was handled.
"That was really a big deal for everybody but me," Kitna said. "A lot of guys on the team were talking about it. . .Everybody is talking about it but me. You guys know my feeling on that. If I was supposed to make those plays, God would have let me get those plays. If I had got 61 plays, or whatever, 80 percent of those plays throughout the year, then everything would have been different. Not just today."
It was an upset because the Bengals came into the game averaging 67 plays per game and the Bills' defense was ranked next to last against the run. But Kitna wasn't all that accurate Sunday as the Bengals were just one of nine on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth.
The Bills looked like they were going to get a cut of the action. They fumbled twice in the last 3:41 to give Kitna a shot. But he returned the favor with two interceptions in five snaps, the last with 1:29 left.
He said he struggled all day with gripping the new ball (he lost a fumble earlier in the game) and he said that's what happened on the first interception. He said the pass got away from him as he was flushed from the pocket and tried to throw across his body to wide receiver Danny Farmer, and got picked off by cornerback Nate Clements.
Kitna said the Bills blitzed more than they showed on film, and he figured it was because the Bills thought they could discourage the Bengals early if they got to Kitna early. They sacked him twice, but also had him running.
Kitna had a AFC-high 13 fumbles last season and it's a habit he still hasn't really broken. He fumbled for the 10th time this season as he ran out of the pocket and was sacked on third-and-13 from the Buffalo 33 and the Bengals trailing, 13-0, in the second quarter.
Kitna said he was looking to "split" two defenders and get back to the 35 so they could try a field goal, but he coughed it up at the 36 and middle linebacker London Fletcher recovered and returned it 20 yards to set up a touchdown.
Kitna later had words with Fletcher after he jumped on wide receiver Chad Johnson in the third quarter while Johnson was lying on the ground after a catch and was called for unnecessary roughness.
FULL CIRCLE: It seemed like the French and Indian War the last time the Bengals were here, but it was only 142 days since they arrived for the pre-season opener with visions of the playoffs. And when the Bengals won, there was much talk about a playoff berth being on the line for both teams when they gathered here again 142 days later.
As it turned out, Sunday's game was the only one in the AFC without playoff implications, and the Bengals walked out as the worst team in the NFL.
"I was hoping when I walked in this locker room," said Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, "I would wake up from a dream. During the preseason, I got knocked out."
SLANTS AND POSTS:** Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson caught six balls for 123 yards, joining Carl Pickens, Eddie Brown and Tim McGee as the only Bengals to have five 100-yard games in a season.
The Bengals are also the first team since the 1983 Oilers (Earl Campbell and Tim Smith) to win just two games with a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver. Johnson finished with 1,166 yards, the most since Pickens in 1996 and fifth Bengals best of all-time.
But Johnson , who didn't start playing regularly until he won a spot with 72 yards in the fifth game, wondered what might have been.
"If I had learned all my plays and done what I was supposed to do, I might be three, two or even one (in the NFL)," Johnson said. "To me, 1,100 yards is something you should have at the 10-game mark of the season."
But he did catch a 50-yarder, his third of 50 or more this season after the Bengals went 34 straight games without one until wide receiver Danny Farmer caught a 51-yarder in this year's opener.
Johnson reiterated his belief that the offensive system, coordinator Bob Bratkowski, and receivers coach Steve Mooshagian should stay: "If we don't, we're right back at square one." . . .
A week after he was the star of the game with 59 yards on 12 carries in the fourth quarter, Nicolas Luchey didn't get a touch and he wasn't happy. He said he was OK to play after X-Rays to his injured pinky were negative, but couldn't understand why he didn't get the call.
Asked if he wanted to come back next year, Luchey, a free agent, said, "I don't like the way I was frozen out today. I got the finger checked, it was OK, I was ready to go, and I got frozen out."
With backup running back Brandon Bennett (ribs) inactive, Rudi Johnson, unlike last Sunday, was active, and he got three carries for 25 yards. . .
Kicker Neil Rackers finished a solid 83 percent season with a 19-yard field goal, making him 13-for-13 inside the 45. Since he hit just 53 percent of his first 39 attempts in his first 26 games, he has hit 82 percent (23-for-28) in his last 22 games. . .