Monday September 1, 1997
Quarter full of miracles

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

These things just doesn't happen. Not in a month of any-given Sundays. Not in Walter Mitty's wildest dreams.

The Cincinnati Bengals borrowed a page from the Indiana Jones playbook Sunday afternoon, and pulled a victory from their proverbial posteriors. Bruce Coslet should cancel today's practice, and instead send his players to church.

''We were praying and hoping for a miracle,'' said Dan Wilkinson, the defensive end. ''And a miracle happened.''

Big Daddy hardly exaggerates here. Sunday's 24-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals was a shot in the dark, a bolt from the blue, and a knock on the door by Publisher's Clearinghouse. If it was not the freakiest success story in the history of the franchise, it has to be included in the final cut.

Seventy-eight seconds from a well-deserved defeat, absent the ball or any remaining timeouts, the Bengals caused an unconscionable fumble and moved 63 yards to an uncanny touchdown. A season that had opened with frightening futility was suddenly all sunshine and lollipops.

''I've been reading in the paper about great Bengals games of the past,'' Coslet said. ''And I think this one will be up there with them. ... One of the coaches said, 'We didn't get the rabbit's foot. We got the whole rabbit.'''

Consider that the Bengals ended the third quarter trailing, 21-3, and that quarterback Jeff Blake had just wasted a precious timeout with one second remaining in the period.

Consider the odds against a backup linebacker (Gerald Dixon) causing a critical fumble by a possession-conscious running back (Larry Centers). Consider the chances of this happening on the last possible play before a punt could have pinned the Bengals against their own end zone with under a minute to play.

''They could have just kneeled down every down,'' Wilkinson said, ''and we probably would have had 50 seconds to a minute left in the game and our offense probably would have had to march 90 yards.''

Consider the prospects of moving 63 yards in 70 seconds, unable to risk a running play or a pass over the middle. Consider the chances of getting the defense to cooperate.

Consider all of this, and consider the Bengals blessed.

''I was amazed, just as amazed as everyone else, when that ball came out,'' said defensive end John Copeland, who covered Centers' fumble. ''When I saw the ball, my eyes lit up like dollar pieces. I couldn't believe it.''

Defensive players practice stripping the ball from firm grips almost every day. Their success ratio rivals lottery tickets.

''I try to get them any time I can,'' Gerald Dixon said. ''But most of the time, if you're up against good backs, they don't fumble. You might get one every 16 games. It doesn't happen too many times.''

Dixon pried the ball loose from Centers with a left-handed tug just before the Cardinals' ball carrier hit the ground. Centers had made a mistake of ambition, wandering in search of a first down when his primary task was to protect the ball.

''He was cutting back,'' Dixon recalled. ''He saw a hole between me and Danny (Wilkinson), and I was right there. If he had made the first down, the game would have been over. But it wasn't.''

Coslet keeps a chart on the sidelines to tell him when it is safe for a quarterback to take the snap and simply kneel. On third down, when the other team has no timeouts remaining, the critical threshold is 49 seconds. Arizona's third-down play - Centers' fumble - commenced at 1:18.

Even then, after this extraordinary break, the Bengals were looking at laughably long odds. But rather than overplay the boundaries, and force the Bengals to the center of the field where they could not stop the clock, the Cardinals conceded the sideline patterns of Darnay Scott and Carl Pickens.

''They messed up,'' Blake said. ''If they want to give it to me, I'll take it.''

Blake completed four of these passes and used up only 23 seconds in the process. Then he found Pickens alone in the back of the end zone for the decisive touchdown.

Afterward, Pickens performed his strange new scoring dance, ''The Dog Tail.'' When a football team wins this way, it tends to lose its inhibitions.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, usually understated, ran off the field shaking his fist. Backup quarterback Boomer Esiason, usually overstated, walked around the dressing room with a rhetorical question.

''Who Dey?'' he asked.

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