BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PONTIAC, Mich. -- Corey Sawyer was the toast of the town. First, he was burned like a defenseless slice of Wonder Bread. Then he was celebrated as the savior of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Corey Sawyer won't be caught by Ray Roberts (72) or Mike Compton (77) as he returns an OT INT for a TD.
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Football is a funny game sometimes, and Sunday afternoon Sawyer went from slapstick to satire, from the ridiculous to the sublime. The Detroit Lions kept attacking him as if he played cornerback in cement shoes, only to see him pick off a pass, sprint down the sideline and provide the Bengals a 34-28 overtime victory.
"I had a tough day," Sawyer said with a subdued smile that said deliverance rather than domination. "Everybody else might forget about it, but I won't. I've never felt picked on like this, and I'm still a little (ticked) off about it. But you're never going to knock me out. I'm going to keep fighting."
He was packing and re-packing a black duffel bag, trying to make room for a pair of souvenir footballs. One was the ball he had intercepted and returned 53 yards to end the game; the other was the game ball he was awarded in tribute to his timely theft. Sawyer was not entirely sure which ball was which, but confusion was the order of the day. What mattered on this afternoon was that the Bengals managed to sort things out in the end.
Season turning point?
Since they last appeared in the playoffs in 1990, the Bengals were 5-23 in September. With a home loss already behind them, and the Green Bay Packers ahead of them, they arrived at the Silverdome with an excellent chance at early oblivion.
But instead of resignation, there was resilience. Instead of panic, there was patience. Instead of coming unglued amid adversity, the Bengals bonded. It might mean nothing by season's end, but had Sunday's score been reversed, season's end would have seemed a lot sooner.
Sawyer breaks up a fourth-quarter pass to Herman Moore.
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"Last year, you guys would have been writing, "The Bengals had a chance to win and didn't,' " said Willie Anderson, the offensive tackle. "But this group of guys is different. There's a new attitude."
New attitudes have become almost an annual phenomenon among the Bengals. They are easy to assert, difficult to disprove, but ultimately meaningless if there is no shift in the standings. What distinguished Sunday's game from so many of those that preceded it was that the Bengals found a way to win the kind of game they customarily lose -- a game of missed tackles and missed opportunities.
Bengals kicker Doug Pelfrey missed one field that would have meant a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, and later had one blocked that would have won the game at the final gun of regulation.
Corey Sawyer was systematically scorched, primarily by the marvelous Herman Moore, and often enough that he was forced to make six unassisted tackles. He figured Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell completed nine or 10 passes against him. If he wasn't toast, all that was missing was the marmalade.
"I'll let my teammates celebrate, but I really can't," Sawyer said. "I put my team in a tough position."
He was mismatched much of the game, a 5-foot-11 corner in single combat with the 6-4 Moore. Yet Sawyer has survived such assignments before, and escaped with fewer scars. He expects to come up with the big play, and he rarely broods when he is beaten.
"Typical corner," Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said. "Short memory."
Fortunately for the Bengals, Corey Sawyer failed to forget his assignments, and failed to forget that Scott Mitchell tends to do dumb things under duress. The Bengals nearly won Sunday's game in regulation because of a bonehead pass Mitchell attempted late in the fourth quarter that was intercepted by Ashley Ambrose. Sawyer seized Mitchell's next mistake.
"I don't want to be looked at as a weak link in the league or on this team," Sawyer said. "I figured they'd try to throw at me all day, that I was the guy to go at. When you get thrown at that many times, you've got to make a play."
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.