St. Nick delivers Bengals gift

12-22-02, 4:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After "The Zodiacs," pleaded "Stay" over the loudspeakers to some of the 43,544 at Paul Brown Stadium that headed for 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, and bulled for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to give Cincinnati its first home victory of the season

The 270-pound Luchey, playing after Dillon left with 126 yards and a bruised left elbow on 18 carries, turned into a running back and hammered home the winning touchdown from three yards out with 1:46 left, carrying up the middle for the last six plays of the 12-snap drive, and finishing with 59 yards on 12 carries.

The Bengals' defense was terrific, holding the Saints to one first down in the second half and forcing quarterback Aaron Brooks to miss his last 11 passes.

Somehow, 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.

The Bengals got what should have been that go-ahead touchdown when Luchey bulled over from the 1-yard line with 10:42 left in the game for his first career touchdown in a game the Bengals trailed, 13-7.

Luchey also converted a fourth-and-one on a drive that included wide receiver Chad Johnson's leaping 15-yard catch.

The high-flying Saints, the NFL's second-most prolific scoring team, needed just 10 points to break their team record of 421 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 NFC rushing leader Deuce McAllister's 15 carries, which netted just 26 yards. And 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 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 for 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.

The offense offered its most punchless outing 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..

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.

Yet he finished 20 of 40 for 190.

But 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 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 wide receiver Chad 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 cornerback Fred Thomas at the Bengals 48.

After Brooks threw a ball right to middle linebacker Brian 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 defensive end Justin Smith logged his team-leading sixth sack.

But rookie left tackle Levi Jones' tough series late in the first half reflected 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 shut down the NFC's second-best offense in the red zone again 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 cornerback Fred Thomas for the first down, and Warrick did the rest, running away from Thomas and shaking off safeties Jay Bellamy and Sammy 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.

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 5-yard facemask penalty on Bellamy at the end of the run helped.

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