12-31-01, 6:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
As soon as the Bengals thought they had won Sunday's game over the Steelers with 37 seconds left in fantasy fashion, kicker Neil Rackers sent them tumbling back to earth and into overtime when he slipped and missed the first extra point of his career when it hit the right upright.
Defensive captain Takeo Spikes said what many of his teammates were thinking.
"Damn," Spikes said. " I looked up in the stands and I thought, 'If he gets another opportunity, he better make this one."
Or, as running back Corey Dillon said of his thoughts, "Man, you don't want to know. It's nothing you can print."
Somehow, a shattered Rackers held it together long enough to coax through a 31-yard field goal with 4:08 left in overtime for the 26-23 win. When his first career OT kick went through, he slumped and grabbed his facemask, and looked for all the world like he had missed.
"He had no choice," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons of hit or miss. "He had no choice."
It had been another miserable day for Rackers on the Paul Brown Stadium turf he deemed almost as bad as late last year in the frozen weather. He also missed field-goal chip shots of 32 and 28 yards and he had company. Steelers coach Bill Cowher said his kicker, Kris Brown, slipped on his last extra-point try to make Sunday's score possible.
"Under these circumstances, it's hard to get excited," said a glum Rackers, who felt more relief than joy. "I was numb. I was thankful the team gave me the opportunity to win the ball game. . .After losing so many close games, they didn't deserve to lose because I missed an extra point."
After a 2-for-4 day on field goals gave him 11 misses on the year with 14 makes, Rackers has been through plenty of ups and downs in two seasons in which he is 26-for-46. But none like Sunday.
Rackers, who had a 22-yard field goal on the first series wiped out
because of tight end Kirk McMullen's hold, missed the ensuing 32-yarder to the right when his plant foot almost slid into the ball. Still struggling for footing, he missed a 28-yarder to the left when he stubbed it. Finally, he decided to kick it as if he had to make no adjustments and hit a 34-yarder on the last play of the first half to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 17-10.
It couldn't have surprised his teammates and coaches, who watched him battle the stadium grass Friday with a 2-for-6 effort between 42 and 47 yards.
"I told Neil when we were getting ready to kickoff after tying the ball game, 'Get your mind right because you are going to make the kick that will win the game for us,'" said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "When we got the ball to their 40-yard line, I went over to him and said 'Neil, when you practice your kicks in this net, I want you to see nothing but you being successful because you're going to go out there and win this game.' That's exactly what he did."
While holder Nick Harris cracked a joke, Dillon told Rackers going on to the field for the winner, "We need you to make this one."
Rackers knew LeBeau could have used another play to get him closer, but he sent him out on third-and-seven from the 13. Cowher was also talking to him in the form of a timeout. But Rackers used the time wisely to find dirt among the sand.
"I was actually thinking (to myself) 'Wow, we have more time to find a better spot (to kick from and we did)," Rackers said. "Anywhere where you could find roots today was where you wanted to be, where you wanted your plant foot to be and that would hold still a little better. In some cases, you weren't able to find anywhere (to plant)."
But Rackers found a spot. Pittsburgh's Brown didn't more often than not.
"There's nothing you can do when you are falling down," Brown said. "I think I fell down twice on my four kickoffs. It's really hard as a kicker to go out there with an aggressive attitude when you are worried about slipping and falling. I am not one to make excuses, either. But that's the way it was today."
It's the second time Rackers has solved the slippery field for a winner at the gun in December. He did it to Jacksonville last year in regulation.
"(The field) is pretty close (to being like it was last year)," Rackers said. "Nick Harris fell down on his first two punts today warming up — you can't go into the ball hard at all like you usually do, you almost have to change (everything) what you're (used to) doing."