Sweet and sour

12-28-03, 3:15 p.m. Updated:
12-28-03, 4:05 p.m. Updated:
12-28-03, 8 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' bid to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years Sunday fell short in shocking fashion here in front of a stunned record crowd at Paul Brown Stadium that expected to watch the Bengals wrap up their first winning season since 1990 against the limping Cleveland Browns.

But working behind a patchwork offensive line, rookie running back Lee Suggs rolled for 186 yards on 26 carries to lift the 5-11 Browns to a 22-14 victory that ended the Bengals' turnaround season under head coach Marvin Lewis at 8-8 instead of 9-7.

Instead of watching the Steelers try to beat the Ravens Sunday night, the Bengals were left looking at a platter of sweet-and-sour with a glass half-empty or half-full.

In Lewis' Coach of the Year masterpiece, the Bengals pulled off the league's biggest turnaround from a 2-14 season in 23 years. They finished second in the AFC North, knocked off three division leaders, won five straight at home, and set a season attendance record with Sunday's Bengals' record crowd of 65,362.

"We have started to turn the corner. We're not around it," Lewis said. "Every time we have peaked around it, we have gotten slapped back. We'll get around the corner and stay around it. We have something to look forward to."

But they were also trying to figure out how they lost three of their last four games, including Sunday's home game against a team that hadn't won on the road in nearly three months, lost eight of its last nine, had 14 players on injured reserve. And they had to be asking how could they possibly give up 264 yards rushing to the running game ranked next-to-last in NFL rushing.

Things happened to the Bengals that didn't happen all year. In having the greatest rushing day by a Cleveland Brown since Earnest Byner in 1984, Suggs broke a 78-yard run for a touchdown that gave the Browns a 13-7 lead late in the first half. The longest touchdown run the Bengals had allowed his season had been 18 yards until Suggs started to his left, then cut back to his right and there was nobody there after cornerback Artrell Hawkins dove and missed him. Left outside linebacker Riall Johnson, making his first NFL start in place of the injured Adrian Ross, took the blame for the play. But he had plenty of help.

"It seemed like anytime we had a guy in the wrong gap, they found it every time, Johnson said.

After not being able to run down Suggs down his right sideline, strong safety Rogers Beckett, gimpy knee and all, said the Bengals made it tougher on themselves because they weren't in the right alignment.

Other non-2003 things: Two minutes later, Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna made a rare mental gaffe and cost the Bengals at least a field goal when he let the first-half clock expire in the pocket. Shayne Graham, finishing off the most accurate season in Bengals' kicking history, rammed a 52-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright early in the second half and his team trailing, 13-7.

"The wind caught it right at the end," Graham said.

Some Bengals were angry with how flat-footed they looked, such as right tackle Willie Anderson.

"I'm (mad). I've been 8-8 before. I don't think enough guys around here really understand the suffering that we've been through," Anderson said. "This is not enough . For me personally, its crazy right now not just to show up for a game like this and not be ready to play and not have pride."

Some, like Lewis, were disappointed, but philosophical. He told his team not to let the critics tear them apart and "diminish," the accomplishments of the season.

"Many of them did things that people said they couldn't do," Lewis said. "They played some of the best football that they have ever played in their lives. They should be proud of that, and not let anything – not even the outcome of today – diminish that."

Some, such as middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, saw a beginning.

"When you don't make the playoffs, then you're not where you want to be," Hardy said. "We're not there yet, but we're showing a little glimmer. Showing a little glimmer."

Others, like running back Corey Dillon, saw an ending. Dillon, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, threw his equipment to the fans as he left the field at the end of the game. Then minutes later he threw down the gauntlet to Lewis when he told the media he's looking to get traded or released with two years left on his contract.

"I'm backing up the truck in here tomorrow," said Dillon, as he motioned to clean out his locker. "We all knew this day was coming. It's not a big mystery. Nobody needs to be shocked. Nobody needs to be asking why. I'm happy. I'm giddy. I'm just happy. . . .It's time for us to do some business decisions."

But in answering why, Dillon revealed he is upset that he only got 45 carries in the five games since he had 18 for 108 yards in San Diego. On Sunday, he had 50 yards on

eight carries while Rudi Johnson had 52 yards on 14 carries and both touchdowns. After he racked up 37 yards on his first three carries as the Bengals scored on the game's opening drive, he carried three times the rest of the first half.

"I was doing my thing as usual and then I was on the bench for the next two quarters," Dillon said. "That's not my call. I don't substitute. I'm pretty sure they wanted Rudi to get his 1,000 yards. That was fine with me.

"The last time I had over 15 carries was the San Diego game when I busted 100," Dillon said. "They made their mind up who they wanted running the ball regardless if I was healthy or not."

Kitna's best season of his life cruelly ended when he overthrew tight end Matt Schobel and strong safety Robert Griffith intercepted it at the Browns 39 with 41 seconds left. He finished with 26 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, a 87.4 passer rating, a slew of career highs, and the immense respect of his teammates.

But he knows the key stat for his team is 1-3 in December.

"We just didn't have a very good December. Teams figured some things out against us, went downhill against us, filled up some running lanes, and we'll have to figure out what adjustments to make," Kitna said. "In this league, if you're the same in December that you are in October and November. . ."

Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson could manage just four catches for 29 yards and had to leave to get fluids in the middle of the third quarter, but returned early in the fourth. It still looks like he'll end up as the AFC's receiving yardage leader.

"I'm going to forget about this game," Johnson said when asked if he learned anything from his second low day of the season.

With the Bengals leading, 14-13, early in the fourth quarter, Browns quarterback Tim Couch hit a killing 19-yard pass on third-and-long to wide receiver Frisman Jackson at the Bengals 25. Jackson, who came into the game with just one catch this season, cut in front of cornerback Tory James to set up the next play.

Suggs then bolted off his right side, made safety Kevin Kaesviharn miss at the five-yard-line, and finished off his 25-yarder that gave Cleveland the lead with just under eight minutes left in the game. Suggs, a fourth-round pick, had the best day by a Browns' back ever against the Bengals on a day missed tackles were the order of the day for a defense that no doubt is going to finish lower than the 27th ranking it had when the day began.

"We played tentatively. Too tentatively," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "They hurt us with the cutbacks. Guys weren't where they were supposed to be.'

Couch finished just nine of 18 passing for 115 yards, but he was good enough to make some big third-down plays as the Bengals couldn't pressure him enough to even get a sack.

The Bengals' defense did rebound from a horrific performance in the first half to shut down the Browns' running game for a time in the third quarter and allowed Cincinnati to turn to its own running game. Rudi Johnson capped a gritty 10-play drive (he carried six times for 23 yards) with his second touchdown of the game on a two-yarder with 12:15 left in the game that gave the Bengals their short-lived 14-13 lead. The biggest play in the drive was actually a 15-yard face-mask penalty on end Kenard Lang, one of nine penalties by each team.

Cleveland took a 13-7 lead into halftime just when it appeared the Bengals were going to re-gain the lead, but Kitna cost Cincinnati at least a try for a field goal as time ran out.

The Bengals had a first down on the Cleveland 3 with 39 seconds left, but Dillon lost three yards on a sweep, and Kitna was forced to throw the ball away on the next play to set up third-and-goal with 10 seconds left. But the clock ran out as Kitna sat in the pocket looking for receivers before taking a sack.

"A mental error on my part is all you can say," Kitna said.

It turned out that Kitna, who struggled against a Browns' blitz on 11 of 17 passing in the half for 92 yards, couldn't overcome two offensive pass interference penalties on Chad Johnson in that drive. Each time, Kitna hung up a streak route for Johnson that Johnson came back for and jumped to reach. He caught one inside the 15 that got negated, and the other one came in the end zone on a push off on cornerback Leigh Bodden. When Johnson had to be attended on the field for cramps, the Bengals lost their last timeout with 50 seconds left, and Johnson finished the half with just two catches for 19 yards.

"No way," Johnson said.

"I don't want to get fined," said Kitna in not discussing the flags.

Dillon and Rudi Johnson did get it going, but it was briefly and only on the game's first drive when they split six carries for 50 yards. Dillon, playing to to the crowd after playing with the Browns, ripped off runs of 15 and 21, and Johnson put the Bengals up, 7-0, just four minutes into the game on a five-yard touchdown run.

But Dillon (39 yards) and Johnson (26) each ended up carrying just six times each in the half as Suggs and little-used Jamel White went off for the Browns.

The Bengals had no answer for a patchwork Cleveland offensive line. With left tackle Barry Stokes (ankle) out, second-year man Joaquin Gonzalez, a seventh-round pick out of Miami of Florida, made his third start of the season at left tackle and free-agent rookie Enoch DeMar his second at left guard.

Suggs, who a career-high 68 yards last week, had the 78-yarder that was the longest run against Cincinnati since the Raiders' Bo Jackson ran for 88 yards in that last playoff season of 1990. But Suggs' 117 yards in the first half made it real hard for the Bengals to get back to those playoffs.

The Browns had failed to rush for 100 yards in six of the previous eight games and White came in averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. But White pounded for30 yards on four carries in their first drive to set up Brett Conway's 42-yard field goal that cut the Bengals' lead to 7-3 with 6:20 left in the first quarter.

Then Suggs got his first work on the next series, slashing for 36 yards in spearheading a grim, tone-setting 14-play drive that consumed nearly nine minutes. The only way the Browns didn't come out of it with any points is they opted to go for it on fourth-and-one-from the Bengals 15, and Couch's roll-out pass to tight end Darnell Sanders in the end zone was in desperation with Hawkins on the coverage.

But Couch had his way on the next drive, helped out again in the running game White churned out 11 yards and wide receiver Dennis Northcutt popped a reverse for 23 more to set up another 42-yard field goal by Conway, this one with 5:10 left in the half and cut the Bengals' lead to 7-6.

Wide receiver Peter Warrick (knee) and left guard Eric Steinbach (thigh) were in the starting lineup despite a limited week of practice after both missed last week's game in St. Louis.

Warrick played well right out of the box, making a catch on the Bengals' first play of the game, and then making the 15-yard catch that put the ball on the Browns 3 late in the half. He finished with four catches for 25 yards.

The Bengals also lost their bid for their first six-game winning streak ever at PBS and their first six-game streak at home since the 1988 AFC champions went 8-0 at Riverfront Stadium.

A beautiful Indian Summer day greeted the Bengals at PBS with pre-game balmy temperatures leaping up to about 55 degrees. They appeared loose and relaxed Chad Johnson tried to sing a few bars of the national anthem into the field microphone and cornerback Reggie Myles played catch with fans in the stands as he stood in the end zone.

Dillon, playing amid speculation it's his last game with the Bengals, gave his traditional "V," salute. He and Johnson were supposed to be a huge factor against the Browns. For the first time this season, Lewis introduced both as starters before the game.

The Cleveland defense has allowed running backs Shaun Alexander, Marshall Faulk, Clinton Portis, and Jamal Lewis to break 100 yards in the last four games on five yards per carry, and Johnson has four straight 100-yard games at PBS.

Johnson broke two plus 40-yard runs two weeks ago in the 41-38 victory over San Francisco two weeks ago, and the Browns have been vulnerable to the big play on the ground. A quarter of their rush yards have been surrendered on just six plays, five by Lewis. And, on Sunday, they gave Dillon and Johnson 4.6 a pop, but the Bengals couldn't take advantage.

Inactive for the Bengals were cornerback Dennis Weathersby, running back Kenny Watson, defensive tackle Langston Moore, offensive lineman Alex Sulfsted, center Thatcher Szalay, tackle Scott Kooistra, defensive end Elton Patterson, and Carson Palmer was the third quarterback.

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