Loss sickens Bengals

12-02-01, 7:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals running back Corey Dillon isn't sure how Pro Bowl safety John Lynch wrenched the ball and the game from him on the Cincinnati four-yard line in overtime.

All Dillon knows is Lynch fell on it at the 3 and Tampa Bay kicker Martin Gramatica won the game on the next play with a 21-yard field goal 9:54 into overtime as the 4-7 Bengals lost their fourth straight and virtually all hopes for the playoffs in a 16-13 loss that made at least one Bengal, "just sick."

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said he thinks his team has a post-season shot, "if we can win out," but this one stung his players. As defensive captain Takeo Spikes said, "I can't swallow it right now."

Dillon had fought through two tacklers at the goal line for a touchdown with eight seconds left in regulation to force the first overtime ever at Paul Brown Stadium. Dillon, who had 79 yards rushing on 23 carries, caught a six-yard pass from quarterback Jon Kitna to get the teams into OT in front of 52,135.

But at first, he wouldn't or couldn't comment on capping a microwave 64-yard touchdown drive that took just 2:29 to run 14 plays.

"That's not a concern," Dillon said. "I'm going to take full ownership of it. I lost this game. Corey Dillon lost this to the game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lynch is a good player. He made a play that won his team the game. . .I tell you what, I'm going to win more games than I lose and that's a promise. I'm devastated, but you have to move to the next one and I will."

But Nick Williams, making his appearance of the season after reconstructive knee surgery as an H-Back, took part of the blame for the fumble. Williams, as the lead blocker, had been blocking Lynch all day. But he sensed cornerback Ronde Barber coming on a blitz and went after him instead.

"I felt the corner," Williams said. "Usually I have to block Lynch, but I felt the corner. I kind of blame that fumble in part on me. Maybe I should have just taken Lynch."

Lynch, who saved his fourth game of the season, said he was surprised he went unblocked as he ran up to the line because Williams or fullback Lorenzo Neal or whoever was the lead blocker took him. Lynch said Dillon made a good move on him and that he stuck his hand out as Dillon went by him to pop the ball loose.

A Dillon fumble is rare. He's only done it 14 times in 1,434 career touches. It's his fourth one this year, but only the second one he's lost.

Lynch, a ninth-year player, is personally keeping the 6-5 Bucs in the playoff hunt. He sealed Monday night's win in St. Louis with an interception, knocked down a Brett Favre pass in the end zone in Green Bay to preserve another win, and picked off a late pass against Dallas.

All of which overshadowed another brilliant effort by the Bengals defense. They allowed just 240 yards of offense in regulation and in overtime blew Tampa Bay out of field-goal range with their sixth sack of quarterback Brad Johnson.

On a third-and-three from the Bengals 30, middle linebacker Brian Simmons blitzed inside and dumped Johnson for a five-yard loss that brought on punter Mark Royals for the punt to the Bengals 4.

"I was surprised they passed," Simmons said. "I sat in the hole and the running back (Warrick Dunn) couldn't get around the quarterback and pick me up."

But it was another struggle for the offense and special teams. Before the tying drive, Kitna had less than 100 yards passing. He had a big completion to Peter Warrick on the next to last play of the drive, a 13-yarder on third-and-10, but no completions for more than 19.

And the difference in the game came on their first punt from their own 37.

Barber, ignoring Bengals' outside defender Kevin Kaesviharn, moved inside and rushed off the slot to block Nick Harris' punt. Todd Yoder picked it up at the Bengals 11 and ran in for the points Tampa Bay couldn't get in its first drive that consumed 18 plays and 11:15.

"I knew it was coming. The call was made," Harris said. "We saw him moving in. I just have to get it and kick it as fast as I can. I thought I did, but who ever that guy was must run a 4.0 (in the 40-yard dash). He's quick."

More woes? The Bengals have no pure tight ends for the last five games. Tony McGee sprained the medial collateral ligament of his right knee on the first play of the first half's two-minute drill and is gone for the season. Brad St. Louis, primarily a long snapper who usually only plays on short yardage and goal-line situations, went the rest of the way as the Bengals could only use one tight-end sets when they also didn't use Williams as an H-Back.

Kicker Neil Rackers pulled the Bengals to within 13-6 on a 41-yard field goal that grazed the right goal post with 4:23 left in the game. And like they did all day, the Bengals' defense came up with a stand when tackle Oliver Gibson sacked Johnson on third down.

Gibson's sack gave the offense the ball one last time at the Cincinnati

36 with 2:37 left in the game. Kitna saved a miserable passing effort by hitting 8 of 12 passes for 51 yards and muscled it into Dillon to tie it and break the Bengals' no-touchdown streak at 10 quarters.

A Tampa Bay turnover in the Bengals' red zone and consecutive defensive stands that didn't yield a yard in the third quarter couldn't jump-start Cincinnati's struggling offense.

The Buccaneers held a 13-3 lead early in the fourth quarter against a Bengals defense that allowed just 194 total yards in the first three quarters. The Bengals still had a shot because with 6:23 left in the game Gramatica missed a 51-yard field-goal try.

But the Bengals managed just 115 yards themselves in the first three quarters with Dillon grinding for 48 yards on 18 yards as the team's most effective weapon.

With 6:45 left in the third quarter and the Bucs driving inside the red zone, fullback Mike Alstott had a third-down conversion from the red-hot Johnson. But Bengals cornerback Robert Bean forced a fumble recovered by safety Chris Carter that gave the ball to the Bengals at their own 30.

Yet, two runs by Dillon for seven yards and a sack of Kitna on a rollout were all that happened.

With Johnson hitting 26 of 33 of passes (and his first 14), the Bengals held again on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 when the Bucs neared the Cincinnati 33. Gibson stuffed Alstott on third down and cornerback Mark Roman knocked away a fourth-down pass to Jacquez Green.

But the Bengals couldn't answer when Tampa Bay cornerback Donnie Abraham had time to step in front of receiver Ron Dugans to pick off a Kitna pass that didn't appear to have much mustard as the offense began to hear the boos.

Rackers gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead, but a special teams unit that allowed Derrick Mason's 101-yard kick return to open the Tennessee loss two weeks ago, still found a way to swipe Cincinnati's momentum when Tampa Bay grabbed the lead with 9:17 left in the second quarter on the blocked punt and held it for a 7-3 half-time edge.

Brad Johnson killed the Bengals softly with short, quick routes. He hit all of his dozen passes in the first half for 97 yards, but got sacked four times, twice by rookie end Justin Smith. The first one came when Johnson tripped on his own lineman and the second when Bucs rookie left tackle Kenyatta Walker chose to block rushing outside linebacker Takeo Spikes and let Smith whiz by him.

The Bengals snapped their skein of seven straight scoreless quarters by keeping the ball for the first 8:10 and 14 plays in taking the lead on Rackers' 23-yard field goal.

But after a drive that went inside the Tampa Bay 1 with Dillon proving effective off tackle behind fullback Lorenzo Neal and Nick Williams, the Bengals tried Dillon on a toss sweep to the left on second down. He got nailed for a four-yard loss as he got wrestled out of bounds.

"They jammed everybody into the middle," said Kitna, who checked to the play at the line of scrimmage. "We had worked on it during the week and felt confident with it."

Kitna, 9 of 13 passing in the half for 69 yards, then short-hopped a

throw to McGee in the end zone.

Dillon, who had 20 yards on his eight carries before the sweep, finished the half with 33 yards on 14 carries.

The Bengals had got a huge lift in the Bucs' first drive when Tampa Bay faced a third-and-two from the Bengals 24 and Gibson came up with a sack of Johnson as Johnson got the snap. Gramatica pushed a 43-yard field-goal attempt to the right.

But in that first drive, the Bengals let Tampa Bay wriggle out of a third-and-27 when Kaesviharn, the rookie cornerback, got called for pass interference and negated Carter's interception.

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