The season that slipped away

12-9-01, 7:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Three months ago to the day at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium, it all looked so bright after the Bengals opened the season with a 23-17 victory over the Patriots.

What a difference 90 days makes.

For the fifth straight game and loss before a season-low crowd of 44,920 at PBS, the Bengals failed to score more than 13 points and one touchdown in a 14-10 loss to Jacksonville that eliminated them spiritually from the playoffs.

Cincinnati and Jacksonville emerged from the ugly scrum both 4-8, and the Bengals were left again to ponder their 11th straight non-winning season.

"We have too many players on this team to be in this position where we are at now. It doesn't make any sense at all," said defensive captain Takeo Spikes after his defense tied a team record with eight sacks and held a foe to 20 points or less for the fourth straight game.

""I know we're out of it," said Spikes of the playoffs. "There's too many teams going good now. There's too many teams in that position where we were two weeks go. Pray for a miracle."

Spikes was especially peeved that the Bengals couldn't muster anything against a limping Jacksonville team that had played on Monday night. The Jags showed up losers of eight of their last nine without four defensive starters.

"I know everybody says, 'Oh, we can't lose to the Bengals,' but they were 3-8, man," Spikes said.

Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, who hit just 16 of 30 passes for 147 yards, showed faith in the deep ball on the three of the first series. But he couldn't connect during a day the Bengals failed to complete a pass of more than 19 yards for the second straight week and the Jags were able to keep eight and nine men in the box to stuff Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon (62 yards on 24 carries) for less than three yards per run.

"I think there'll be a (playoff) team at 8-8 in the AFC," Kitna said. "But we lost to a lot of AFC teams that are going to be right around there."

Dillon, after his fifth straight sub 100-yard game, mourned the fifth non-winning season of his five-year career.

"It's sad, isn't it? It's very sad," Dillon said. "This year looked so promising, but it's not over. We (still) have four games to go. I mean, if nothing else, let's build on those four games. We still have a shot. I can remember the last four years, we weren't even in this situation and now we've still got an inside shot to try to get something done. Hopefully, we'll go out and win these four and finish strong and see what happens."

Despite rookie defensive end Justin Smith's first career hat trick with three sacks and a cut index finger on his throwing hand, Jags quarterback Mark Brunell passed for 242 yards. He threw the winning touchdown on a third-and-three pass to wide receiver Keenan McCardell from 11 yards out with 14:27 left in the game that erased the Bengals' 10-7 pad.

The Bengals had a third-and-three and fourth-and-three from the Jacksonville 36 with about 3:30 left in the game, but Kitna couldn't hook up with Dillon and running back Brandon Bennett on short passes. On fourth down, Kitna had to roll to his left away from defensive tackle Gary Walker and got rid of it to Bennett that would have been a first down if Bennett could have held on at about the Jacksonville 30.

Kitna sprained the middle finger of his throwing hand in the third quarter, but said it didn't affect a passing day that included an interception. What seemed to affect the Bengals more anything was the huge presence of Jags strong safety Donovin Darius, who planted himself in the box as if he was the middle linebacker.

In an attempt to counter their injuries at tight end, the Bengals at times used 350-pound backup tackle Jamain Stephens as a blocker next to 340-pound right tackle Willie Anderson. They would also line up Dillon occasionally in a full-house backfield with Neal and H-Back Nick Williams.

But the Bengals' offense couldn't run behind the beef because Darius was running up from behind and Kitna (eight of 15 passing for just 85 yards in the first half) still couldn't hurt the Jags' battered secondary with the long ball.

"They were looking at something," said Anderson of the Jags' scheme. "(The safety) was there everytime and that guy was running full speed. I don't know if he was guessing right. I don't know if he knows what's going on. That's the

question. They continued to stop him with that guy. It's not because of the line. We're getting push. We're doing our job. Everytime we called a run, (Darius) knew to come running up full speed."

The Bengals tried to get Darius to back up early. On Cincinnati's first series, Chad Johnson had nickel back Kiwaukee Thomas beat down the right sideline at about the Jags 10. But Kitna underthrew the ball, Johnson's feet got tangled with Thomas, and both Johnson and Kitna thought it should have been pass interference.

"It was underthrown a little bit," Kitna said. "The middle of the field, guys were digging in, and my back foot slipped and I was still trying to get it out there. My thing was I just wanted to put enough air on it to try and give him a chance to go and get it. I think he was getting ready to do that and the guy fell into him. . .I don't get it."

Then on the next series, Kitna half rolled out on a play-action pass and had Scott wide open on a post, where the ball just went past Scott's fingertips at the goal line.

"I would have liked to have put a little more air on that one," Kitna said. "I was getting hit just as I threw it and I think that affected the throw a little bit. I thought we had that one."

Then on the next series, Kitna lofted a bomb for Johnson, but he wasn't near the ball when Jags cornerback Aaron Beasley stretched out for an interception at the Jacksonville 24.

The Bengals, who came into the game having the lead for just 20 minutes in the last four weeks, took a 10-7 edge with 5:41 left in the third quarter when kicker Neil Rackers clicked with new long snapper Randy Chevrier on a 47-yard field goal.

Then on the next series, Bengals cornerback Mark Roman had a chance for another sack on a blitz to Jags Brunell's blind side. But Roman pulled up as Brunell completed a pass that gave Jacksonville a third-and-one near midfield.

But Brunell cut his throwing index finger on Roman's facemask and had to leave on the play Bengals middle linebacker Brian Simmons stuffed the third-and-one run.

But the Bengals, who finished with just 200 total yards, could go nowhere and got a bad, 36-yard punt out of Nick Harris that put the ball at the Bengals 38.

Brunell returned to convert a third-and-19 on a 29-yard bullet to McCardell between a zone in a defensive alignment that cornerback Robert Bean thought half the defense didn't hear called because of crowd noise.

Then Brunell found McCardell for the winning score a few plays later.

McCardell's partner, Jimmy Smith, got his 100 yards in the first half and finished with 119 and McCardell finished with 92 yards.

The Bengals' defense continued its terrific post-bye play as five sacks forged a 7-7 half-time tie.

Rookie cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn got his first NFL interception late in the half when he picked off Brunell on a third-and-20 after stepping in front of wide receiver Jimmy Smith to set the Bengals up at the Jags 38 with 2:52 left in the half.

After Kitna found Chad Johnson (17 yards) and Darnay Scott (12 ), Dillon finished off the drive with a nine-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7 with 1:01 left in the first half.

Despite sacks by Smith (his second of a team-high three) and tackle Tony Williams, Brunell drove the Jags to Mike Hollis' 44-yard field-goal try with nine seconds left in the half that bounced off the right upright to preserve the tie.

After Dillon's frigid start (he had 15 yards on his first eight carries), he finished the half with 42 yards on 13 carries. His touchdown off the left side came courtesy of Neal's pancake block on Beasley.

The special teams didn't help the Bengals again when Kaesviharn drilled Jags punt returner Damon Gibson before he could catch it at the Jacksonville 13 for a penalty that gave Brunell life at his 31 on the game's second series. The Jags' running game, ranked third worst in the NFL, gouged the Bengals enough to set up big plays to Smith.

Smith got outside Bean on a hook pattern and he got most of his 20 yards after the catch. Then on third-and-2, Smith stopped a pattern in front of the secondary over the middle at about his five-yard line and broke tackles by Bean and strong safety JoJuan Armour to complete a 17-yard touchdown that gave the Jags a 7-0 lead with 1:51 left in the first quarter.

Smith had his fifth 100-yard day against the Bengals by the half with 105 on eight catches. Brunell hit 13 of 20 passes for 141 yards in the half off his 311-yard Monday night effort.

The Jags defensive line, anchored by right end Tony Brackens and left end Renaldo Wynn, dominated the first half. Working inside and outside on the left side of the Bengals' line, Brackens had a sack and a tipped pass in the first half.

With game time temperatures reaching a balmy 42 degrees and both secondaries limping, conditions were ripe for the Bengals and Jaguars to throw the ball.

Before the game, the Bengals made cornerback Artrell Hawkins (ankle) inactive for the second straight game while the Jags put down cornerback Fernando Bryant (foot) and free safety Marlon McCree (ankle).

The Cincinnati passing game took a shot when wide receiver Danny Farmer didn't dress because of a sprained ankle received last week in practice. But the Bengals hoped to boost their running game when they put left guard Matt O'Dwyer into the starting lineup for the first time since he sprained a medial collateral knee ligament Nov. 11 in Jacksonville.

After Sunday's game, Hawkins was elevated to questionable and Farmer probable for Sunday's game in New York against the Jets. Also questionable were three players injured Sunday: Anderson (ankle), center Rich Braham (shoulder) and cornerback Bo Jennings.

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