This Given Sunday
Updated: 12-21-03, 9:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ST. LOUIS - Now the Bengals need a little help.
Now, it may indeed come down to the last regular-season game of the year. Next Sunday night in Baltimore, where the Bengals need the Steelers to win. But first, the Bengals have to beat Cleveland at Paul Brown Stadium in a game that ends four hours before the Ravens kick off against Pittsburgh.
It's probably the only way this Coach-of-the-Year season for Marvin Lewis should end, with his two old teams maybe deciding his team's fate on national TV Sunday night.
The ifs and buts are now as clear cut as the Rams' 27-10 victory over Cincinnati here Sunday after the Rams defense forced three turnovers and overpowered the Bengals in a dominating second half in which St. Louis controlled the ball for nearly 18 minutes, including the game's last 8:26.
With Baltimore doing the same in a whitewash of Cleveland, the 8-7 Bengals fell a game behind the 9-6 Ravens in the AFC North. The only way the Bengals can qualify for the playoffs for the first time since their last winning season of 9-7 in 1990 is by winning the division with a Baltimore loss and their own victory over the 4-11 Browns.
"After 13 years, did you think it would be any other way? We've done it the hard way the last 13 years," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Next week, it's going to be a dogfight. It's going to be a dogfight when we play Cleveland on Sunday (afternoon). Then on Sunday night, we're going to sit on pins and needles to see if Pittsburgh beats Baltimore, which they will."
The Bengals more than survived that opening surge that Lewis warned them about in the madness here of the Rams' cozy home at the Edward Jones Dome and were down just 17-10 at the half.
But it was the St. Louis defense that did in the Bengals' undermanned offense instead of the Rams' high-powered offense accounting for Cincinnati's fourth loss in its last 12 games. The Rams harassed Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna into his first three-interception day of the season, delivering the clincher coming with 8:26 left in the game. And then the exhausted Bengals defense allowed St. Louis to hold the ball the rest of the game.
"That was the most disappointing part of the game," said Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons. "Not being able to get the ball back for the offense."
Kitna, who hit 16 of 29 passes for 202 yards, tried to run the same play that got the Bengals their only touchdown in the second quarter, but this time cornerback Jerametrius Butler stepped in front of rookie wide receiver Kelley Washington for the interception.
Two of Kitna's interceptions were tipped on blitzes. He sprained his ankle during the game and had it wrapped in ice at his postgame news conference. Kitna, indicating his ankle will be fine for next week because it has been classified as a mild sprain, said the Rams took the Bengals by surprise with some of their "pressure packages."
The Bengals could never get the running game going with running back Corey Dillon getting it only seven times for 37 yards, and Rudi Johnson managing just 30 yards on 11 carries. That allowed the Rams defensive line to go after Kitna in the pass rush. For instance, end Grant Wistrom was able to work successfully on left tackle Levi Jones, still laboring less than two weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery. Wistrom had 2.5 of the Rams' three sacks after coming into the game with just four on the season.
"We lost the battle on third down," Lewis said.
The Bengals came into the game fourth in the NFL in third-down efficiency, but on Sunday they could convert only 31 percent on 4-for-13. Kitna, one of the NFL's top third-down passers this season, threw all three of his interceptions and got sacked once on third. But the battered and bruised Kitna remained the optimistic face of his team.
"We have to take care of what's in our hands, and we just have to go out and not worry about what comes later," Kitna said. "The thing is, we have to end the season on a good note. We have a chance to be 9-7, and that hasn't been done around here in a long time. There's enough on the line. We want to end the season on a good note. If the playoffs happen that's great, but we want to take care of what we can."
The Bengals lost their poise in the third quarter when defensive tackle Tony Williams got a 15-yard flag for retaliating after the snap after offensive lineman Andy McCollom whacked him in the head following the play, and that led to Jeff Wilkins' 50-yard field goal with 3:25 left in the third quarter that made it 20-10.
"They didn't see the first one," said Lewis, still livid about the call.
Early in the second half, it looked like the Bengals got a break, trailing, 17-10, when cornerback Jeff Burris picked up a punt in his own end zone and stunned the Rams by running it 102 yards to the St. Louis 5. But the play was flagged dead because both teams had already sent their other units onto the field after they thought the ball was downed for illegal substitions penalties.
Burris said he has worked on that play in practice and several teammates weren't surprised he did it. But apparently it took the offensive line by surprise because the linemen headed to the field even though the ball wasn't whistled down, and what could have been a game-changing play was lost.
"I've seen Jeff do that before," said running back Brandon Bennett, who is on the punt team. "Then I saw Jeff pop out of there and I knew what he was doing. But as I was running down the field, I knew there were too many people out there."
The Rams offense still put up big numbers as the Bengals allowed a 100-yard rusher in running back Marshall Faulk (121 yards on 22 carries) and allowed their fourth 100-yard wide receiver in four games when NFL receiving leader Torry Holt grabbed 10 balls for 124 yards.
Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson did get his fifth 100-yard game of the season with 115 on seven catches.
"To win a big game like this," Anderson said, "you need your big dogs to stand up."
The last four minutes or so of the first half gave Cincinnati problems, not the game's first four minutes, as the Rams scored 10 points in their typical flurry before a home crowd and a place they have won 13 straight in the regular season.
But even then the Bengals answered that when Kitna hooked up with Chad Johnson for a 47-yard bomb that set up Shayne Graham's 48-yard field goal on the last play of the half that closed the Bengals deficit to 17-10.
The play gave Johnson the Bengals single-season receiving yardage record and blunted a Rams rally that broke up a 7-7 game on Wilkins' 26-yard field goal with 4:39 left and Holt's back-breaking 28-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Marc Bulger on third-and-nine with 47 seconds left.
The Bengals also came in here with the most depleted roster of the season, but held up gamely in front of a hostile crowd in not committing any procedure penalties while the Rams had four.
But they couldn't contain Holt, the NFL's leading receiver. Holt two huge third-down conversions on the drive at the end of the half that took just 2:13. On third-and-four, Holt cut in front of cornerback Tory James for a nine-yard play, and then with the Bengals trying to hold the NFL's most prolific offense at scoring touchdowns in the red-zone to a field goal on third-and-nine from the 28, Holt outfought James at the line, and then floated underneath Bulger's loft for the 17-7 lead.
On the previous series, Holt's 22-yard catch was the big play in the drive that resulted in Wilkins' field goal as Bulger finished the half 16-of-24 for 169 yards on the way to finishing 24-of-38 for 229 yards. Faulk also did damage with 46 yards on 10 carries.
But in the first half, the Bengals defense overall did a solid job against the vaunted Rams offense that has scored the third-most points in the NFL. The Bengals didn't get much help from their offense when it was 10-7 and they were deep in their own territory.
Kitna, 10-of-16 for 117 yards in the half, got sacked by both defensive ends, Levi Jones got called for holding to negate running back Corey Dillon's nine-yard run, and Rams end Leonard Little put a good rush past Anderson to force Kitna into an incompletion. Jones played just as bravely as he did last week,, but his knee seemed to give him more trouble on AstroTurf than grass.
The conventional wisdom said the Bengals could run the ball on a Rams defense rated 22nd in the NFL against the rush. Dillon had 28 yards on his first three carries, but didn't run the ball for the last 22 minutes for the first half, and Rudi Johnson could manage just nine yards on six carries.
It was an offense that had been retooled. The Bengals decided to scratch rookie left guard Eric Steinbach (thigh) before the game and start Scott Rehberg for the first time this season. Steinbach got injured in last Sunday's victory over the 49ers, when his pulling was a key factor in running back Rudi Johnson's 174-yard rushing day.
The Bengals lost wide receiver Peter Warrick (knee) on Friday to arthroscopic surgery, but the Rams lost Isaac Bruce in pregame Sunday when they decided to rest the franchise's leading receiver and his high ankle sprain.
Burris, himself saddled with the lingering effects of a concussion, replaced Warrick as the punt returner. He had returned two punts this season with a long of 13 yards. If there was a change, the Bengals were going to turn to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He hasn't taken a snap yet this season, but has been catching punts in practice.
Rehnberg started three games last season at right guard, one of which was Dillon's 164-yard day in Indianapolis. He also played most of the second half at right guard in Dillon's 130-yard game against Tennessee.
Rehberg pulled on the Bengals' second snap of the game to spring Dillon for a 22-yard run off the right side that made Dillon's the club's all-time scrimmage yard leader. He also became the 28th man in NFL history for 8,000 career yards later in the half.
Washington stepped up in place of Warrick with a two-yard touchdown reception on third-and-one that was produced from a one-on-one move against Butler. The big plays were Bennett's 12-yard sweep on third and three, and Rudi Johnson's 14-yard run-and-catch over the middle.
The touchdown was set up when the Bengals stuffed Faulk on fourth-and-one from the Cincinnati 43. The Rams ran behind Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace and fullback Joey Goodspeed, but free safety Kevin Kaesviharn and outside linebacker Riall Johnson combined to come up with a big surge at a critical point in a game the Rams led, 7-0.
The teams traded interceptions in the first eight minutes and the Rams made it hurt. James made a leaping interception on his 17 on Bulger's pass thrown into double coverage to end the game's first drive.
After an exchange of punts, Kitna had a third-and-seven from his 44. Safety Rich Coady came in untouched on a blitz from the Bengals' right side and batted the ball as Kitna released it. Linebacker Tommy Polley picked it off to give the Rams a short field at their own 49.
Nine plays later Faulk, stepped over the goal line standing up for the game's first score with 1:59 left in the first quarter.