Teams play special until 3:53

11-18-02, 12:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Special teams giveth and special teams taketh away.

The much-maligned Bengals' unit offered a solid outing Sunday and had the Bengals in the hunt until 3:53 left in the game. Which is when wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh fumbled away a punt that would have given the Bengals the ball at about the Browns 40.

Four minutes earlier, running back Brandon Bennett had run the Bengals back into the game with an 82-yard kick return. And two minutes before that, the Bengals had appeared to slam a fumble out of the NFL's second-leading punt returner, Dennis Northcutt, at the Cincinnati 44.

But linebacker Adrian Ross was called for a controversial 15-yard interference penalty that resulted in a Phil Dawson field goal and he fumed later, "He's going to disrespect me. They didn't even block me and then they kick a short kick and he's going to come over and not fair catch the ball. I was going to hit him regardless. You just can't running up, not block a guy, and call that."

And before all that, field goal kicker Neil Rackers, who had twisted his non-kicking foot Thursday, hit field goals of 31 and 37 yards in the second half.

But this one will most likely be remembered for Housh's Woosh as Chris Gardocki's punt eluded his outstretched fingertips. Houshmandzadeh, who played a nice game at receiver with three catches for 59 yards, didn't back down from blame.

"I got out of position," Houshmandzadeh said. "It was drifting to my right, and I started to go

to my left and I stopped my feet. Once you do that, every ball you're going to lunge for. With him being left-footed, that's how the ball is going to go. I was just out of position."

At the other end, the Bengals did a good job hemming in Northcutt. He came into the game as one of only two players in the NFL who had returned two punts for touchdowns this season, and after giving up a 95-yard return for a touchdown in Baltimore last week that dropped them to 29th in the NFL in defending punts, the Bengals held him to two returns for 19 yards and two fair catches.

But Ross and the Bengals feel they caused Northcutt to fumble with 10 minutes left in a game the Bengals trailed, 24-20. The ball appeared to hit Northcutt's hands at about the time Ross rocked him in the numbers and linebacker Riall Johnson jumped on the fumble. Ross insisted he gave Northcutt a chance to catch the ball.

"He came sprinting up the field at me," Ross said. "That was his chance to catch it."

Browns coach Butch Davis, who thought Northcutt's aggressiveness to come up and catch short punts saved them 75 yards on bounces Sunday, disagreed.

"It was a no-brainer. You cannot interfere with the returner's opportunity to catch the ball," Davis said. "As long as his momentum continued to go forward in an attempt to catch the ball, you can't run into him — you can't hit him. It's different than in college where they have the halo rule. They don't have that in the NFL. You can brush by a guy — run across his face — but you can't impede his progress."

Bennett, who set a Bengals' record with 228 kick return yards last week, very nearly tied the game at 27 with eight minutes left when he almost went all the way for the second straight week

But safety Devin Bush, the last man between Bennett and overtime, caught him at the Browns 7 as Bennett cut back from the sideline to the middle of the field. When the Bengals couldn't score, it turned out to be the winning tackle.

Bennett, who has been bothered by Turf toe, practiced sporadically last week and had been listed as a game-time decision. But he said the toe didn't hamper him or slow him down.

"I just needed one more blocker, but I'm not mad because they got me that far," Bennett said. "At that point I was slowing up waiting for my blockers. I figured all they had to do was shield them and I was in, and I had two guys with me."

If Bennett keeps going at this pace, he'll break Tremain Mack's club record for most return yards in a season. Mack had 1,382 in his Pro Bowl season of 1999. After 173 on Sunday, Bennett has 969 this season, which translates to 96.9 per game. That would give him 1,550.

"That's one of the times it happened just the way Al (special teams coach Roberts) draws it up," Bennett said of the opening blocks by Lorenzo Neal and Ron Dugans. "After I followed those guys, I outran the kicker, just like Al says."

With his two field goals, Rackers is now 9-for-11 this season and has hit six straight and 17 of 21 dating back to last season.

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