December 16, 2002
CINCINNATI -- So, how would the league's worst team blow this one? More goal-line follies? A left-handed pass from a right-handed quarterback, perhaps? Maybe a fumble or interception?
Nope. This time, the Bengals flunked math.
Because Cincinnati couldn't get the right number of players on the field for a punt return, the Jaguars got the second chance they needed for a 29-15 victory Sunday.
The smallest crowd ever at Paul Brown Stadium watched Mark Brunell throw a season-high three touchdowns, the last one set up by Cincinnati's inability to count.
"That was a major error," Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said. "We've got coaches counting, we've got players counting, and we still can't count to 11."
Trying to hold a third-quarter lead, the Bengals left 12 men on the field when Jacksonville punted into the end zone.
The Jaguars accepted the penalty, which set up fourth and 1 and sent the offense back onto the field. Stacey Mack ran 8 yards for the first down.
The Jaguars faced fourth and 6 four plays later. They went for it again and Jimmy Smith ran past Jeff Burris for a 26-yard touchdown catch.
"I was like, 'What are we saving it for? Let's go out and go for it,' " said Smith, who had seven catches for 98 yards.
The touchdown put the Jaguars ahead to stay and sent the Bengals on their way to their 13th loss, tying the franchise record. They've had five 13-loss seasons during their 12-year run as the league's most woeful franchise.
"It always comes down to: We shoot ourselves in the foot," safety Cory Hall said. "You put 12 men on the field; that's high school, that's college, that's peewee. Every team does it, but when we do it, it's usually at a critical part of the game. It's mind-boggling. It seems like it only happens to us."
The Jaguars were starting to get the same feeling after Tim Couch's last-second 50-yard pass gave the Browns a 21-20 victory Dec. 8 in Jacksonville, a defeat that turned up the heat on Jags coach Tom Coughlin.
On Sunday, Brunell was the coach's biggest ally.
Brunell was 19-of-28 for 223 yards with three touchdowns, and he made his coach's fourth-down gambles turn out right.
"I was pleasantly surprised," Brunell said of Coughlin's bravado. "But Tom has confidence in our offense in those critical situations. For us to get a touchdown out of that drive was huge."
Fred Taylor ran for 71 yards and Mack had a 3-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, sending fans to the exits.
The Bengals sold 42,092 tickets for their second-to-last home game, their smallest gate in the stadium's three years. The actual attendance was around 30,000 and most were so disinterested that they didn't stand for the kickoff.