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Finally, a victory!

HOUSTON -- After what they've been through this season, 1-7 sounds awfully good to the Cincinnati Bengals.

''It was a good effort -- 1-and-7 feels a lot better than 0-and-8,'' said Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, whose team record-tying 102-yard interception return set the tone for Cincinnati's 38-3 victory Sunday over the Houston Texans.

The Bengals, successful in backing apparent game-week guarantees by coach Dick LeBeau and receiver Chad Johnson, looked nothing like the NFL laughingstock the franchise has been for the last decade, dominating the Texans (2-6) on both sides of the ball.

Cincinnati became the last team to post a victory this year, and they did it in style: It was their largest margin of victory since Dec. 17, 1989, when coach Sam Wyche capped his grudge match with Houston Oilers counterpart Jerry Glanville by calling a late timeout to kick a field goal in a 61-7 rout at Riverfront Stadium.

This time the bad blood centered around game-week media hype surrounding LeBeau and Johnson, both of whom separately predicted a Cincinnati win.

''I know Dick personally and I know that he did what he had to do to get his team ready to play,'' Texans coach Dom Capers said after his young exhibition team's worst defeat. ''Whatever he did, it worked.''

LeBeau said afterward he made the prediction as a vote of confidence in the way his Bengals had played recently, especially after a close-call loss to the Tennessee Titans last week. Johnson, who apologized for causing any hard feelings, said he was just trying to fire up his mates.

''It feels good, but everyone misconstrued the guarantee thing,'' said Johnson, who made a late touchdown grab once the game was in hand. ''What I wanted to do was add some fuel to our fire, make a statement.''

LeBeau joked he ''didn't know (his) powers of clairvoyance were so omnipotent.''

Hawkins helped them make good on the pledge when he stepped in front of Texans receiver Corey Bradford two yards deep in the end zone, snared a David Carr pass and sprinted down the right sideline, which he appeared to nick as he made a cut at the Houston 24-yard line before flopping exhaustedly in the end zone.

Referee Larry Nemmers said instant replay was inconclusive, rejecting a Texans challenge.

Carr gamely tried to track down Hawkins, whose play tied two other 102-yard Bengals runbacks for longest play in franchise history, the last coming on an Eric Bieniemy kickoff return against the New York Giants on Oct. 26, 1997. It also ended Carr's streak of 97 straight pass attempts without a pickoff, spanning more than three games.

The play, which closed the first quarter, gave Cincinnati a 10-3 lead as the Bengals went scored 38 unanswered points.

''It started to snowball,'' tight end Billy Miller said. ''That play wasn't a play that just won the game for them. We couldn't dig ourselves out of the hole.''

Jon Kitna, who said he hadn't had a four-touchdown game since his World League days, took it from there. He found Michael Westbrook for a 26-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and passed 33 yards to Peter Warrick with 42 seconds left in the half for a 24-3 halftime lead.

Kitna sealed Houston's fate with a pair of fourth quarter scoring tosses, to Westbrook for 12 yards and Johnson -- the guarantor -- for 10 yards.

''This difference was that Jon Kitna is settled in at quarterback,'' Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson said, referring to upheaval at the position until Kitna took the reins four games ago. ''He played with more confidence today and it showed. He did a very good job of reading the Texan defense all game long.''

NOTES: The Texans failed to notch a sack for the first time this season. It was the seventh time in eight games the opposing defense recorded more sacks than Houston. … Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross, a California native who makes his offseason home in Houston, greeted a large personal cheering section after the game. Many were wearing orange shirts sporting his No. 57. … Houston, a fixture in the old AFC Central before the Oilers left after the 1996 season, is 0-2 against former division rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati. Houston has still has games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and two against Tennessee, the former Oilers who now share the AFC South, with the first coming next week.