Point of no return?

12-26-03, 7:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Turning point of the 2003 season?

Ask around the Bengals' locker room, and you get as many answers as helmets.

"Oakland," says quarterback Jon Kina of the first road game in the second week of the season. "No one knew they were going to be a 4-11 team then. Even though we lost (23-20), we knew we were in it all the way and could have won it."

"Some would say Buffalo," says right tackle Willie Anderson of the overtime loss in Orchard Park that dropped the Bengals to 1-4 before the bye week. "Tough team on the road and look at how many chances we had to win it."

Others, such as Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan, point to moments. Brennan red circles outside linebacker Brian Simmons' forced fumble and recovery against driving Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller in the middle of a first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium in a game Baltimore already led, 7-0. That turnover led to a tying touchdown, a 34-26 victory, and sent the 1-4 Bengals on their current 7-3 binge.

But this week, with the Bengals preparing for the same Cleveland team they beat back on Sept. 28 for their first victory, there has to be some votes for Kitna's 55-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chad Johnson with 20 seconds left before the half.

With most everyone expecting the Bengals to take a knee and go into the locker room trailing, 14-7, Kitna got the ball with 1:05 left and moved the Bengals to his 45 with passes to tight end Tony Stewart and wide receiver Peter Warrick before burning a Cleveland secondary that until that day had yet to give up a passing touchdown. It tied the game at 14, blunted Cincinnati's 0-3 start, and marked Marvin Lewis' first victory as a head coach.

"I can't remember that game," Johnson says.

"You know, the game Cleveland had just gone up, and then you scored right before the half to tie it," someone prods him.

"Oh yeah," Johnson says. "I remember it now."

"There are other things that have sparked us besides that," he says. "That could be one of the big ones, though. That was our first win, right? You know what? That could have turned it around."

It was certainly the first of many times this season that the Bengals answered adversity positively. Call it the Bounce-Back Factor. After the Browns took a 14-7 lead with 9:31 left in the half, the Bengals did everything with the ball but score.'

But then came the quick strike, and it provided enough momentum for the Bengals to score on the opening drive of the second half and hold on to the 21-14 lead for the game's final 24 minutes.

It also marked the game the Bengals began limiting losses to one-game losing streaks. The Bounce-Back Factor has prevented them from losing two straight since Sept. 14-21.

"And we're going to bounce back this week," Johnson says after the 27-10 loss in St. Louis.

"That's Marvin (Lewis). He never let's you dwell on it," Kitna says. "He shows you the mistakes. Sometimes he shows the mistakes in front of the whole team. He has made each guy accountable. From my experience here, it's not, 'it's so-and-so's fault.' It's guys looking hard at themselves and saying, what could I have done to make that outcome different. That's what you want. You want guys to take a hard look at themselves."

Kitna is probably going to stick with Oakland as his turning-point choice, but he understands the significance of the Johnson play. He agrees that it marked the moment this team rid itself of its take-a-knee mentality and took on the aggressive posture of a playoff contender.

"It was the turning point of that game for sure and we needed a win," Kitna said. "Twenty seconds left, we felt like we had time to score."

With Lewis and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski thinking, "Touchdown," Kitna felt the vibes.

"Kit told me in the huddle, 'Just run,'" Johnson says. "I didn't have to say it. He said it."

So with Johnson "just running," Kitna led Johnson down the middle of the field with a text-book over-the-shoulder pass as Johnson raced past strong safety Robert Griffith.

"They were playing Cover Two. Beat the safety one-on-one," Johnson says. "He thought I was going to take it to the sidelines and then I just went back up. The safeties bite on anything."

It was the same play that Kitna and Johnson hooked up on in the last minute of the half against the Rams last week. This one was almost as big. The 47-yard play allowed the Bengals to answer a Rams' touchdown with 47 seconds left with Shayne Graham's 48-yard field goal on the last play that cut St. Louis' half-time lead to 17-10.

Except, this time, Johnson said if Kitna had led him like in Cleveland, "it would have been six." But Johnson noticed Kitna did get some pressure in St. Louis.

"He sat back there all day against Cleveland," he says.

As for Lewis, he might vote for it.

"There's no question, that was great execution by those guys, and it was a huge part of our season," Lewis says. "Instead of hanging our heads and going the other way, we responded and answered their score, which was big for us. This is a season where we have had a number of those plays, which is the good thing. When you are successful and win some games, you have that."

But Lewis saw the Bounce-Back Factor earlier, tracing it all the way back to a brutal pre-season opener ("Somebody tinkled on our corn flakes there.") against the Jets, and a kickoff return against them for a touchdown that opened the pre-season finale in Indianapolis.

"Then we started the season, and Denver kicked our teeth in, and we dealt with it," Lewis said. "I think our guys are tough. There was nothing that we could do on or off the field that they hadn't been through or seen. They had been down, but it was a matter of realizing that we weren't that down. Let's go. Let's go make plays, one play at a time, and we'll be fine."

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