10-6-03, 4:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. _ No less than a seasoned Bengals' observer named Takeo Spikes summed up where his former team stands after Sunday's should-have-had-it 22-16 loss in overtime to Spikes' desperate Bills.
"I think the one thing is learning how to win and that's what Cincinnati is struggling with, but I was very impressed with them," Spikes said. "They are a much better team.
"You have to learn how to win and this is a step where we learned how to win together," Spikes said.
It came down to this:
With 5:33 left in the game, the Bengals couldn't get a first down on third-and-one from the Bills 11 and had to kick a field goal. From then on, Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe converted one third-down play and one fourth-down play while racking up 106 passing yards, one more than he had in the first 55 minutes.
The Bengals haven't learned how to win yet. That's going to be the theme of head coach Marvin Lewis' bye week. If you finish plays, you finish victories, and there have to be victories at 1-4 and the next five weeks featuring four home games after the Oct. 12 bye.
The Bills are almost as spanking new as the Bengals after their off-season makeover, but they learned something in those nine minutes. Lewis ("We learned a valuable lesson today") hopes they get it during the bye week. It was the Bills' NFL-leading 17th overtime victory. The Bengals failed to get their 15th in 23 tries.
"Cincinnati outhustled us," said Bills owner Ralph Wilson as he rode down the press-box elevator.
But they still didn't win. The Bengals wanted this one badly and they took the loss as badly as any in recent memory. Lewis and quarterback Jon Kitna held curt news conferences and no one expounded past, "They made one more play than we did."
"We have to find whatever it is within ourselves to make plays and we are not doing that," Kitna said. "Last year we came to Buffalo at the end of a long season and everyone was ready to go home, today we came here to win."
One of the reasons they wanted so badly to win is because they didn't want to see what they ended up seeing, and that was Spikes donning the CBS-TV headsets for the quick post-game interview with the winner. They didn't want Sunday to validate Spikes' move via free agency.
Lewis made his team aware of the Game Day morning pronouncement by the Buffalo media that the Bills had to win because the Bengals are still the Bengals, and Spikes' close friends like right tackle Willie Anderson wanted to have the last word.
The usually voluble Anderson didn't wait to hold court with the media, briskly left the locker room, and didn't mingle with Spikes like some of his teammates did at the post-game barbecue for both teams in the parking lot.
Make no mistake. They wanted this one badly.
"I think he was little shocked that the game was that close," said Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross of Spikes. "They thought we were going to come in here and I think they expected it to be easier. But these are the type of teams we have to beat. An AFC opponent
that people are talking about the players they have and the defense they have. We want to be like that and now we've got two weeks where we re going to have that taste in the mouth."
Cornerback Artrell Hawkins, whose place on passing downs in the slot was taken by rookie Terrell Roberts in the game's last 22 minutes while he moved outside because of a neck injury to Jeff Burris, shook his head.
"We did a decent job containing them for most of the game, but we still lost," Hawkins said. "I can't (stress that) enough. It doesn't mean anything to come close. It's not enough to shut them down for 3.8 quarters of the game and not make the plays we needed to make to win it."
There were plenty of those:
Getting stopped on third-and-one. Missing the tackle on Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds' 19-yard catch on fourth-and-three in the tying drive in regulation. Bobbling the overtime kickoff and not converting a third down on the first series of overtime to allow the Bills' field goal position with a punt into the wind.
But if the Bengals didn't make plays, the Bills made them. Despite playing with an injured groin, Moulds followed up his fourth-down catch with a leaping 28-yard grab over cornerback Tory James in overtime. With the Bengals blitzing him in the final moments, Bledsoe adjusted so he could get the ball off, such as the wide-open 20 yard pass to tight end Mark Campbell over the middle on Buffalo's first snap of overtime.
"They were blitzing us and we changed the protection rather than throwing the hot route," Bledsoe said. "It was something I probably should have gotten done earlier in the game on a couple of their blitzes, but I saw that they were bringing up the blitz from the weak side and we were able to get Travis (Henry) over there to pick it up and left Mark wide open."
"We figured they were going to come after us," Bledsoe said. "They've blitzed a reasonable percentage of the time through the course of the season. We felt like they might come after us even a little more than previously and I think they did."
The Bengals, leading 16-13, came after him on fourth-and-three in regulation from the Bengals 39 on the first play after the two-minute warning. If they get him, they win. Roberts blitzed and got there a split second late as Bledsoe released the ball.
"It's a play that we call 'all sticks' where all the (five) receivers run to the first down and Drew (Bledsoe) just picks the best look," Moulds said. "I just pushed (James) up, Drew threw it on me, I made the catch and tried to get as many yards as I could."
James played Moulds well all day, not giving the Pro Bowler anything until the last 5;27 of regulation. He finished with nine catches for 99 yards, but 63 of those yards came on four catches in the last 9:20. James' fatal mistake wasn't allowing Moulds to get the first down on an impossible-to-cover pivot route, but allowing him to pick up another 15 yards.
And there wasn't anything James could do on the 28-yarder in overtime down the sidelines in which Moulds won the jump ball and aggravated his sore groin.
"It's a play that we call a 'fade-stop.' We knew going into the game that they didn't want us to go deep against them so they wanted to over-play us on certain routes," Moulds said. "It was a,great call by Kevin (offensive coordinator Gilbride) to run that one and Drew made a great throw."
As Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons said, "It's pretty evident they made one more play than we did."
It looked like the Bengals got the one play they needed when Peter Warrick returned a punt 30 yards to the Bills 20 with 7:34 left in a 13-13 game. But Kitna threw behind Chad Johnson on a slant route for seven yards when something in front of him might have put the ball near the goal line.
But it was third-and-1 from the 11, and the Bengals sent Rudi Johnson behind left tackle Levi Jones and left guard Eric Steinbach, where he had gone for his 16-yard touchdown run moments earlier. But even with defensive tackle Sam Adams out of the game they couldn't get movement and lost a yard and had to settle for Shayne Graham's 30-yard field goal.
"I guess they were loading up, weren't they?" Rudi Johnson said. "We're going to start winning. We're a lot closer than people think."
At least a yard, but that's all it takes most weeks in the NFL.
"The importance of it was obvious," Hawkins said. "We're going into a bye week coming out of a three-game losing streak and to win two in a row. All that would have been great, but we didn't make it happen."