12-22-02, 4:15 p.m.
Updated: 12-22-02, 7:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
After "The Zodiacs," pleaded "Stay" over the loudspeakers to some of the 43,544 at Paul Brown Stadium heading to the exits late in the third quarter, the Bengals stayed the first winless home season in Cincinnati history with a 20-13 victory over the stunned New Orleans Saints.
Fullback/tight end Nicolas Luchey, who turned into St. Nick during Christmas Week, came off the bench to replace the injured Corey Dillon (left elbow) and Brandon Bennett (ribs), and bulled for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to give Cincinnati its first home victory of the season.
After the 270-pound Luchey banged in from three yards out with 1:46 left to bust open a 13-13 tie on a play the Saints let him score to stop the clock, Luchey saluted the man who led the Bengals to an undefeated home season in 1988 when No. 30 danced "The Ickey Shuffle."
"I wanted to give a special shout out to Ickey Woods just because I wear Ickey Woods' jersey and Ickey Woods is a friend of mine," said Luchey after scoring his first two career touchdowns on his first 12 carries since Christmas Eve of 2000.
"I respect the things that Ickey Woods and those guys did back in the day. (Tim) Krumrie, everybody back 10 to 12 years ago. Boomer Esiason. What they did for the Bengals. I just wanted, in a way, to commemorate him. . . I just wanted to let him know he's still alive here."
But how much life is left in the administration of Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau is still the biggest question of a 2-13 season that ends next week in Buffalo with a loss securing the worst record in franchise history.
With Detroit's loss to Atlanta Sunday, the Bengals still need to beat the Bills and the Lions have to lose to visiting Minnesota next week to avoid the NFL Draft's first pick.
LeBeau sounded as if he knew Sunday might have been his last home game.
Asked what the victory means for him, LeBeau said, "It was a very, very special day in my life."
If it is the last one in Cincinnati for LeBeau, then it's fitting it was a defensive masterpiece. The Bengals' unit played the way it was supposed to all year. Their NFL third-worst run defense stuffed NFC rushing leader Deuce McAllister on 26 yards in 15 carries, they held the NFL's second-highest scoring offense to one touchdown, and they forced Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks to misfire on his last 11 passes in a second half New Orleans had just one first down.
"It does make you wonder because we didn't change a thing," said strong safety JoJuan Armour. "We ran the same things in minicamp, training camp, and this time we just executed."
But it was LeBeau's attention to detail on offense in the red zone that might have won this one. After losing games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh because they couldn't score in close in the closing minutes, an enraged LeBeau stopped practice Friday when red zone play got sloppy and started the practice over. Which is how right tackle Willie Anderson saw it.
So on Sunday, the Bengals, 29th in red-zone scoring in the NFL with
16 touchdowns in 37 possessions, scored twice in the red in the fourth quarter, with Luchey carrying six times for 27 yards once they got inside the 20.
"He fussed at everybody. He stopped the practice. He hasn't been happy with our production," Anderson said. "They emphasized it. They kept harping on it it. They said if we paid attention to these details, we'd be successful in the red zone."
The defense, in turn, shut down the NFL's fifth best red-zone offense, forcing the Saints to go 0-for-3. Defensive end Justin Smith had two of the Bengals' four sacks, but it was the stopping of McAllister that unleashed the pass rush dormant all season.
"That was the key and we were able to tee off," said Smith, who now leads the Bengals with seven sacks. "And they let us rush straight up instead of making the ends come down all the time and run slants. They let us rush outside and we got good pressure."
The defense woke up on the same day the running game stirred after a month-long siesta, again proving when you can stop the run and run the ball, you don't lose. The Bengals rushed for 240 yards, their most since gouging Arizona for 292 on Dec. 3, 2000. When Dillon (126) went down with the elbow and Bennett (58) fell on someone's cast and bruised his ribs, here was Williams in the fourth quarter playing tailback.
And he hadn't run the ball in a game since the last game of 2000 because he missed most of last season with reconstructive knee surgery, he has been known too war with the coaches over his weight, and he has suffered nagging injuries.
"He is our third tailback. We've been doing that since training camp," LeBeau said. "And he made no mental mistakes. Of course he had the ball under his arm most of the time."
So a guy who came into the game with 84 yards on 20 carries in a four-year career put the Saints on the brink of elimination (they have to win while the Falcons or Giants have to lose) with 59 yards on 12 carries, all in a fourth quarter the Bengals had the ball for all but 2:22.
"With Corey Dillon pounding us all day, it seemed like we wore down a little bit at the end there," said Saints safety Sammy Knight. "They brought in that big back – about 280, 290 _ and it seemed like he got four or five yards every time, even after you hit him."
The Bengals did have their Special Teams Gaffe of the Week when Saints defensive tackle Grady Jackson came up the middle to block Neil Rackers' extra point with 10:42 left in the game to keep it a 13-13 game.
Luchey also converted a fourth-and-one on the tying touchdown drive that included wide receiver Chad Johnson's leaping 14-yard catch.
The high-flying Saints needed just 10 points to break their team record of 422 points and did it in less than 10 minutes. But they could only get three more in their lowest production of the season.
The Bengals' best defensive effort of the season could be symbolized by middle linebacker Brian Simmons stretching out on fourth-and-six at the Bengals 25 to knock away a pass to wide receiver Boo Williams late in the third quarter as the Saints clung to a 13-7 lead.
But Simmons had to make that play because of the surprisingly sputtering offense. In the last nine games under Kitna, the Bengals had averaged 22.7 points, but they couldn't dent until late a defense that had given up at least 20 points in every game.
The Bengals had a third-and-five at the New Orleans 30, but Johnson false started and it turned into Kitna's interception thrown right into the hands of cornerback Fred Thomas at the 22-yard line and he took it 43 yards the other way.
It was a frustrating third quarter for the offense. Dillon, breaking his five-game drought of 100-yard games, almost took one to the house for the go-ahead touchdown, but safety Jay Bellamy tripped him up by the left shoe at the last instant. He also had a fumble in the first half, and almost had another in the second before he fell on it.
The offense offered its most punchless outing in the first half since the Oct. 20 bye week with six first downs, three turnovers, and two sacks in falling behind to New Orleans, 13-7, at the half before another half-empty bowl at PBS.
It was quarterback Jon Kitna's worst outing since he became the starter as he completed just five of 14 passes for 53 yards in the half. And 30 of those came when he hooked up with wide receiver Peter Warrick on the Bengals' first series of the game for a run-after catch touchdown that gave the Bengals a 7-3 lead less than seven minutes into the game.
But Kitna made the throws when he had to, including a huge 15-yarder to wide receiver Ron Dugans on third-and-five on the winning drive that put the ball on the Saints 44 with 5:13 left. Kitna finished 20 of 40 passing for 190 yards.
Even though Dillon had his most yards in the last five games with 70 yards on 10 carries, the Bengals could do nothing for the rest of the first half as the passing game reverted to the first month of the season.
They had their chances. John Carney, riding a streak of 18 of his last 19 field-goal attempts, pulled a 33-yarder and it hit the left upright in the middle of the second quarter for the Saints. But Kitna, unable to get Johnson his four yards for 1,000 in the first half, went for him over the middle on a crossing pattern and it got picked off by Thomas at the Bengals 48.
After Brooks threw a ball right to Simmons that was dropped, he found wideout Joe Horn for 15 yards on the next play to set up Carney's field goal from 43 yards with 1:13 left in the half to give the Saints a 13-7 lead.
But the Bengals' defense was superb for the most part in the first half against the NFL's second-highest scoring offense. They forced four straight three-and-outs in the second quarter, highlighted by outside linebacker Canute Curtis stuffing McAllister on a third-and-one.
Inside linebacker Takeo Spikes recovered two fumbles and Smith logged his team-leading sixth sack in the half.
Rookie left tackle Levi Jones' had tough series late in the first half in reflecting the Bengals' offensive woes. Dillon looked to get close to a first down when he stretched a second-and-10 play to the sideline, but Jones was called for holding defensive end Darren Howard and on third down Jones let Charles Grant get around him to nail Kitna in the back to force a fumble at the Bengals 16.
But the defense held and Carney hit the left upright.
Spikes picked up two fumbles for a defense that came into the game with a league-low six recoveries. Dillon picked up 45 yards on his first four carries, but a nifty 26-yard second-effort into Saints territory got negated when linebacker Sedrick Hodge came from behind and punched the ball from him for a turnover.
Carney wasted no time staking the Saints to a 3-0 with a 38-yarder. It marked the tenth time this season the foe scored on its first drive and fifth time in the last seven games.
The Bengals came back in just 1:31. Warrick returned to the lineup with bruised lungs after missing a week and picked up right where he left off on the Bengals' first series. On third-and-11 from the Saints 30, Kitna hit Warrick over the middle working against Thomas for the first down, and Warrick did the rest, running away from Thomas and shaking off Bellamy and Knight, finishing off the touchdown with a stretch over the goal line.
Then the Saints and their speed receivers took just 1:56 to respond. Rookie Donte' Stallworth, making his first NFL start, took a quick post pattern in front of cornerback Jeff Burris and just ran away from him down the middle of the field, past diving strong safety Marquand Manuel for a 57-yard score and a 10-7 lead.
The Bengals were all over McAllister, holding him to no yards on his first five carries and 13 on nine carries in the first quarter. But Brooks was playing pitch-and-catch with his receivers. He completed 11 of 14 passes in the first quarter for 154 yards and Horn had five of them against soft coverage from Burris and the rest of the cornerbacks fearing New Orleans' speed.
But Brooks went 5-for-24 in the second half for 13 yards.
Dillon finished with his best first quarter in weeks with 43 yards on five carries. His 15-yard bolt off the left side on his first run helped set up the touchdown, and a 15-yard face-mask penalty on Bellamy at the end of the run helped.