Cleveland spoils Bengals’ playoff dreams

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 29, 2003

CINCINNATI - Some time in the next few weeks, the Bengals will look back and feel good about their first season under coach Marvin Lewis.

Someday, but not today. No with that sick feeling still churning in their stomachs.

Rookie Lee Suggs ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, leading the Cleveland Browns to a 22-14 victory that provided a gut-wrenching ending to Cincinnati's resurgent season.

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Instead of clinching a winning record and staying in playoff contention a while longer, the Bengals (8-8) showed they've got a long way to go before they can totally cut ties with their dismal past.

''This game is going to hurt, regardless of what we say,'' said quarterback Jon Kitna, whose interception ended the game. ''Once we have a chance to reflect on some things, we're going to say this season was a good foundation for us and what coach Lewis is trying to do.

''When we look back on it, we'll say, 'You know what? We took some serious steps forward.'' But that doesn't diminish the disappointment we feel today.''

Playing in front of the biggest crowd ever for a Bengals home game, Cincinnati developed a serious case of stage fright against the Browns (5-11), who were drubbed 35-0 a week earlier by Baltimore.

The Bengals needed to beat their intrastate rival to clinch their first winning record since 1990. They could have won the AFC North title with a win and a loss by the Ravens.

However, the Ravens beat the Steelers Sunday, 13-10 in overtime.

But the Bengals' sorry performance made it a moot point, giving Baltimore the division title before the Ravens stepped on the field Sunday.

Playing in all-black uniforms for the first time since the season opener, when they got blown out by Denver, the Bengals got pushed around by an injury-ravaged team that could barely cobble together an offensive line.

''You look at the first half, and we played a lot like we did the first game of the year,'' Lewis said.

The Browns ran for a season-high 178 yards in the first half alone, with Suggs breaking off a 78-yard touchdown run. The fourth-round draft pick also had a pivotal 25-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

''You look at the numbers in the first half - how does that happen?'' Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons marveled.

A lot of things defied explanation.

For instance, the Bengals had a chance to pull ahead just before halftime, when they drove to the 3-yard line. Out of timeouts with 10 seconds left and the ball on the 6, Kitna went back to pass knowing exactly what he had to do.

If no one came open right away, he was supposed to throw it away so the Bengals could kick a field goal. Instead, he stood in the pocket and waited for someone to get open.

No one did. Kitna realized he had used too much time and took off. He never got back to the line of scrimmage.

The crowd of 65,362 booed the home team off the field at halftime.

''We all were somewhat frustrated,'' said Kitna, who was 23-of-35 for 175 yards. ''You think you're going to play better than that, and we didn't.''

In the second half, a rookie with a lot to prove got the best of a team with everything to gain.

Suggs, who was getting a chance because of William Green's suspension, put the Browns ahead to stay with his 25-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. He also made big plays on a clock-killing drive to a field goal in the closing minutes.

''Teams passed on me 114 times,'' said Suggs, the 115th overall pick. ''I've got to prove I'm better than a fourth-round pick, the 11th back taken. I'll carry that with me the rest of my career. On draft day, I was the most disappointed player out there.''

After Kitna threw an interception with 41 seconds left, the Bengals got reacquainted with a disappointment that has dogged them for 13 years.

''I'm tired of it,'' Pro Bowl offensive tackle Willie Anderson said.

Notes: Bengals RB Corey Dillon threw his helmet, shoulder pads and cleats into the stands as he left the field, his way of saying goodbye. Dillon, who was replaced by Rudi Johnson, expects to be released in the offseason. … Browns QB Tim Couch, who was 9-of-18 for 115 yards, said he wants to return for the final year on his contract. … Suggs' 186 yards were the most by a Browns running back since Dec. 16, 1984, when Earnest Byner got 188 against the Houston Oilers. His 78-yard TD run was the longest against the Bengals since Bo Jackson had an 88-yard touchdown run for the Raiders in 1990.