Turning point?

9-15-03, 4:35 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

OAKLAND, Calif. _ If Marvin Lewis set the tone for how his team should approach a road game this past weekend, he also set the tone for how it should react to a close loss that could just have easily been their first victory of the young season.

A post-game media session lasting all of two minutes and 23 seconds. No day off Monday. No easy practices. Not with his hometown Steelers coming to town this Sunday.

His quarterback, Jon Kitna, outplayed NFL MVP Rich Gannon all day until he threw a red-zone slant pass for an 83-yard interception return by Raiders cornerback Phillip Buchanon that broke a 13-13 tie with 3:46 left in the game.

"We had a chance to go up in the game with a field goal. A field goal puts up with not a lot of time left and the guy made a hell of a play jumping inside and taking it all the way back," Lewis said. "We have to get better in both areas. Knock it down or (make a better) throw. Whatever you do, you've got to give yourself a chance not to lose the game at that point."

Asked if Kitna made a bad decision, Lewis said, "We don't comment on decisions," and then abruptly ended the news conference.

He also didn't like the fact the defense gave up a 55-yard drive in 69 seconds that set up the winning field goal. You knew he'll be talking a lot about finishing this week.

"We've got to get them into overtime there," Lewis said.

Forrest Gregg, the first head coach to take the Bengals to a Super Bowl, remembers how a close loss in his first (6-10) season to the play-off bound Browns turned his program around. No one was ready to say that Sunday, but, still, the players who have lived through the misery liked the karma that floated out of this one.

Players like running back Corey Dillon (knee), cornerback Artrell Hawkins (cervical neck strain), cornerback Tory James (cramps), and right tackle Willie Anderson (hamstring) either didn't leave the game or kept coming back into the game. In years past with some long-gone players, an injury on the road against a contender meant you could get a head-start shower and start thinking about that window seat.

"Oooh yes, it says a lot about this team," said wide receiver Chad Johnson. "After 30-10 (last week's loss to Denver), and then to come in here and play like this against whatever champions?"

Or, as running back Corey Dillon said after the loss to the AFC champions, "We fought. We're going to go down swinging. Every damn game. You can believe it. Quote me. Blow it up. If we keep playing like this, we're going to be really hard to beat. It's coming, believe me, it's coming. If you want to jump ship now, jump ship. Our day is coming."

The video board at Network Associates Coliseum chortled with the Raiders play-by-play announcer crowing about Kitna's interception, "Jon Kitna finally made the mistake. It took him 56 minutes, but he finally. . ."

The problem was, Kitna had the ball in the red zone when the chortling descended on the crowd of 50,135 and was about to tie the game with 1:18 left on an eight-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Peter Warrick.

The big Bengal screwup, the big Bungle muck job, the one Cincy folly is supposed to end it all and provide a nice teaser for ESPN and the easy, push-button Monday morning columns.

The Bengals? They never come back after the big bumble. Write in the punch line here.

Right?

"I don't think at one point we gave up and that's something different," Hawkins said. "Before, you could kind of feel that the sideline was fading in terms of its morale. But today, even going after Kitna gave up that touchdown, he comes right back. We get the good kickoff return. That's the sign of a good team, a sign of a team that doesn't flinch, the sign of a team that's not going to stay down. Kit comes right back with all the poise in the world, and he's in the pocket picking them apart and gets us back into the end zone."

Hawkins left the game not feeling that some stupid Bengalized play had cost them.

"I don't feel that way. You had good plays and bad plays. They needed to make one more play than us and they did," Hawkins said. "We're going to be in a lot of games like this and we're going to win our share."

Anderson felt like, "it's a step in the right direction. We should take something good out of it." Middle linebacker Kevin Hardy liked how the Bengals showed sparks in the Raiders' "Black Hole, down, 10-0 without a first down.

"It should help," Hardy said. "We played hard on the road. We went on the road, played well in a hard-fought game, and after doing it in an environment like this, we should be able to play well anywhere."

Hawkins said the key was getting out of the first 5:33 alive.

"That was the tripped out part about today," Hawkins said. "We knew this was their home opener, and that we had to outlast their initial burst. Everyone else might have been going, 'Here go again,' but we were thinking, 'They've got two or three more hurrah series and after that, it's just football,' and that's what happened."

Kitna is now looking at the upcoming games against AFC North foes this Sunday (Pittsburgh at home) and in two weeks (at Cleveland) a bit ruefully. The Bengals have never won a AFC North game.

"I would hope it would help us," said Kitna of Sunday's fallout. "The fact of the matter is instead of being 1-1 and feeling pretty good about ourselves, we've dug ourselves a little bit of a hole (at 0-2). We have division games coming up in the next two weeks, and we've got an opportunity to get ourselves back to .500 and get right."

Kitna feels like it's just a little to early to say this game turned it around like that game for Gregg's 1980 Bengals when Pat McInally got taken off the field on a stretcher and he returned to catch a touchdown pass in a meaningless game.

There are similarities with the injuries, and the odds of a win, but. . .

"We just can't sit back and say,. 'This turns it around,'" Kitna said. "We have to go out and make that happen. We have to make it important by winning."

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