The Gift and The Curse

12-1-02, 4:10 p.m. Updated:
12-1-02, 6:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

There are so many ways that the Bengals have lost down through the years, but they seem to have tapped out all possibilities in this last cruel month

This time Sunday in front of the smallest crowd ever at Paul Brown Stadium, they did a little bit of everything to turn a nine-point fourth-quarter lead into a 27-23 loss to Jeff Blake's Ravens.

The 11th loss in this season's dozen games and the 18th in the past 21 dating back to Nov. 11, 2001 got right tackle Willie Anderson thinking about title of a CD by one his favorite artists, Jay-Z.

"The Gift and The Curse."

"The gift is that we get to do what we love for a living. We're able to make a great living playing a game," Anderson said. "The curse is that we have to go through this crap for 12 years. You love it on one hand and hate it on the other.

"Today is a perfect example," Anderson said. "How do you get up 23-14 and everything is going great and then. . .damn?."

How?

Try a missed extra point, the longest interception return ever against Cincinnati, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and a fumble when their own players collided.

It comes a week after they lost a fourth-quarter lead in Pittsburgh on a fumbled punt. It comes two weeks after a recovered fumble in the fourth quarter got waved off by interference and they couldn't get their best player into the end zone on two shots from the foes' 1. It comes a month after their winning touchdown in the final 1:08 got negated when their guard slipped and tripped up his own running back on fourth down.

"It's almost unbelievable," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "If you sit down and try to tell the story to your grandchildren years from now, they'll think you're telling tall tales."

Quarterback Jon Kitna won the passing duel with Blake, the former Bengal, when he rung up his first 300-yard day of the season on 308. Blake threw for just 115 yards, but he fired two touchdowns and the 22-yarder to tight end Todd Heap with 5:12 left in the game stood up as the winner.

"When you play teams that have a different caliber, you play to their level," said Blake, who still has the Ravens in the playoff chase at 6-6. "It's a lot easier to go out and play a team like Pittsburgh than it is a team like the Bengals because you try not to play to their level. You want to play at a higher level. When you play a team like Pittsburgh and it's the last game of the season for all the marbles you don't have anything to lose."

This loss means the Bengals lost all six of their AFC North games in the first year of realignment and went winless in the division for the first time since 1993.

For the third straight home game, the Bengals drove to the doorstep in a bid for the winning or tying touchdown in the last minute as Kitna converted three fourth downs to bring them to the Ravens 13 with 1:15 left. But on his last fourth down try, needing seven yards, he couldn't hook up with running back Corey Dillon on a pass near the goal line for a first down with 28 seconds left.

Kitna, who completed 30 of 46 passes, said the Ravens pretty much dropped eight men into a zone for those final four throws, one of which was completed for three yards to backup running back Rudi Johnson.

Adding to the surrealism of the moment was that Dillon was on the sidelines for four straight plays after a blow to the head and didn't get back on the field until the last incompletion.

"There was nowhere to go. . .(so) I checked down to CD. The guy made a good play," said Kitna of Ravens defensive end Adalius Thomas.

A crowd of 44,878 watched Dillon become the fourth man in NFL history rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons, but Ravens running back Jamal Lewis won the battle of the ground. He rushed 22 times for 121 yards for his fourth 100-yard game against Cincinnati in four tries. Dillon finished with 70 yards on

23 tries, with just 18 of his yards coming in the second half.

For the second straight week, the Ravens blocked a punt for a touchdown and it came on the first play of the fourth quarter and cut the Bengals' lead to 23-21.

Rookie free safety Chad Williams, who had turned the game once before at the end of the first half, did it again when he lined up next to last week's blocker, Ed Reed. Williams shot inside Reed, swiped the ball off punter Nick Harris' foot, and wide receiver Ron Johnson took the bounce 22 yards for the touchdown.

"It didn't surprise me where he lined up," said Bengals tight end Chris Edmonds, who was working on Williams. "It wasn't a stunt or anything like that. He's a smaller guy, but I shouldn't have tried to outmuscle him and he dipped his shoulder."

The Bengals drove to the Ravens 26 on their next series and were looking at a field-goal try on third down when Kitna said Dillon's shoulder bumped the ball out of his hand after a play-action fake and Thomas recovered the ball at the Baltimore 31 to set up Blake's winning pass to Heap.

"Corey was coming around trying to get to his (pass) protection," Kitna said. "He was trying to skin by me and he hit the ball with his shoulder. We're missing by the same two or three inches that a lot of other teams are missing by. But ours are turning into disasters for whatever reason."

After a game-altering interception that ended the first half, the Bengals regained their balance long enough to extend their half-time lead from 16-14 to 23-14 when Kitna ended Cincinnati's first possession of the second half by hitting wide receiver Chad Johnson with a 35-yard touchdown pass 5:09 into the half.

Kitna pulled off a play-action fake and Johnson beat cornerback Chris McAlister to the inside for his fifth touchdown catch of the season. Johnson, who had four catches for 78 yards, said it was one of only two routes all day the Ravens left him single covered.

The killing interception that Kitna has avoided during his marvelous eight-game stretch came at the worst possible moment in the final minute of the first half.

Somehow, the Bengals still managed to take a 16-14 half-time lead on Neil Rackers' 40-yard field goal on the last play that came courtesy of two 15-yard penalties on Baltimore.

But the Bengals could have been up, 20-7, if not for Chad Williams' 98-yard interception return for a touchdown with 19 seconds left in the half that gave Baltimore a 14-13 lead.

With the Bengals leading, 13-7, and at the Ravens 8 with 35 seconds left, Kitna threw a pass to the outside of Dillon as Dillon cut inside to the goal line. The ball went right to Williams, who returned the third interception for a touchdown against the Bengals this season and tied the longest ever returned against them 19 years after the Jets' Darrol Ray did it in the playoffs.

"Miscommunication," Kitna said. "I thought Corey was going to turn out. He was kind of playing off the guy. The guy stepped back in. It was a miscommunication at a very bad time."

Before the play, Kitna had sifted the Ravens for his first 10 passes and 14 of his first 18 for 156 yards and a touchdown.

The Bengals' Rudi Johnson, subbing for the injured Brandon Bennett, broke the ensuing kickoff return for 42 yards, and then a personal foul on Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware gave Rackers a 55-yard chance that he pushed left.

But a "leaping," penalty on wide receiver Randy Hymes gave Rackers the chance to convert on his seventh straight field goal when the ball got moved to the Ravens 22, much to the the chagrin of enraged Ravens head coach Brian Billick.

Kitna hit his first 10 passes for 98 yards, including a four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for his first NFL scoring catch. Kitna got a nice block from Dillon on the blitzing Boulware on the play as he hit Houshmandzadeh on a crossing route, but Rackers missed his first extra point of the season when he banged it off the right upright with 4:28 left in the first quarter.

Kitna got the big play when he got a leaping 31-yard grab over the middle by wide receiver Ron Dugans on a good pass between free safety Will Demps and cornerback Robert Tate. Dugans finished with seven catches for a career-high 81 yards with three of the catches coming on third or fourth down.

Bengals safety Mark Roman forced Blake to fumble at the Bengals 20, but somehow Blake got the ball back when no one fell on it.

Matt Stover's 39-yard field goal was negated on tight end John Jones' holding penalty and Stover popped the ensuing 48-yarder short.

Then the Bengals went up 13-0 just three minutes into the second quarter when Dillon veered right from five yards out and carried Reed into the end zone.

Again Kitna supplied the big play. The Bengals wasted no time when on the first snap after the missed field goal, he hit a wide-open Peter Warrick for a 32-yard gain off a play-action fake that went to the Ravens 29. Dillon set up his score by ripping off 10 yards on a draw.

But the Bengals' defense, ranked next-to-last against the rush, couldn't respond on the ground or in the air. Lewis, three weeks after he ripped them for 135 yards, kept it going in the first half when he mauled them for 74 yards and a 6.7-yard per carry average.

Blake used a run fake to close the gap to 13-7 when his play-action sent wide receiver Travis Taylor wide open on a post pattern past free safety Cory Hall for a 39-yard touchdown pass with 8:26 left in the half.

But the Bengals' defense did stand up at certain junctures. Defensive end Justin Smith set up the next-to-last drive of the half with a sack and defensive end Bernard Whittington ended the Ravens' first drive of the game with a sack. Linebacker Takeo Spikes led an active front seven that put a lot of heat on Blake with 11 tackles and tackle Tony Williams came up with his team-leading fifth sack.

Brock Gutierrez got the start at center for the Bengals when Rich Braham didn't go with an ankle injury.

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