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THE NFL PLAYOFFS : Bengals Stand Tall Despite the Loss : Cincinnati: They nearly upset the Raiders despite a series of injuries to key people and illness.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best and the biggest for the Bengals’ offensive line stood on the sideline, unused, replaced by two understudies who were struggling to hang onto their shoulder pads against the likes of Howie Long and Greg Townsend.

No small chore, of course, but try to hold onto your lunch while battling flu, the Raiders and unaccustomed heat.

“Couldn’t do it,” said Cincinnati running back James Brooks, who was supposed to miss Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game because of a dislocated thumb. “The thumb was all right, but I was running down the field and throwing up.”

Like Brooks, defensive end David Grant and quarterback Boomer Esiason had been knocked down by flu before Sunday’s 20-10 defeat by the Raiders in the Coliseum.

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“If it had been the middle of the season I might not have played,” Esiason said. “The doctors gave me a shot of penicillin, and that’s what really hurt. And then on the first play Howie hits me and I land on my butt.”

It was bad, Coach Sam Wyche said. As demanding as it can get for a football team that has already been pegged a decisive underdog. But it was 10-10 in the fourth quarter, and the Bengals were close to ending the Raiders’ season on a sickening note.

“In our room over there is a bunch of disappointed guys,” Wyche said. “But a bunch of guys that I can’t believe did what they did today under the odds in which they had to play.

“We had a couple of real smart writers in our town saying we were faking our injuries and we really didn’t have people hurt, and it just shows their ignorance. We saddled it up with what we had, and we gave them--a championship football team--one whale of a game.”

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The Raiders had their own hill to climb after losing Bo Jackson in the opening moments of the third quarter. Jackson had averaged more than 12 yards a carry against the Bengals, but he was being helped off the field with a hip injury.

“I keep telling people Marcus Allen is the No. 1 guy there,” said Grant, who had five tackles and a sack for the Bengals. “Bo has a lot more speed, but he’s still Marcus Allen--a great running back. He keeps Bo on the bench; he’s the one who starts.”

While the Raiders struck back with Allen, the Bengals fought back with Esiason. The Bengals came back from a 10-3 fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game on Esiason’s eight-yard touchdown pass to Stanford Jennings with 11:49 to play. And then they had the Raiders pinned down on third and 20 from the Los Angeles 32.

But on third down Cincinnati cornerback Eric Thomas zigged when he should have zagged, and wide receiver Tim Brown caught a short pass from Jay Schroeder and turned it into a 26-yard gain.

The Raiders got their first down, and three plays later Schroeder took advantage of linebacker Leon White’s man-on-man coverage on tight end Ethan Horton, connecting with him on a 41-yard touchdown pass play.

After the Raiders scored, the Bengals moved to the Cincinnati 43-yard line with a first down and more than six minutes to play. However, Townsend didn’t buy the Esiason’s play-fake to Brooks, and grabbed onto the “son” on the back of his jersey and threw him to the ground for a 15-yard loss.

“We were trying to keep them honest with the play-fake,” Wyche said. “We had been running well, but actually our No. 1 receiver (tight end Rodney Holman) was wide open on the play. But we didn’t fool Townsend. If we had, that might have been the biggest play of the drive, because Rodney was behind everybody.”

By that time, however, the Bengals figured to be way behind the Raiders. Perennial Pro Bowl tackle Anthony Munoz (torn rotator cuff) was replaced at left tackle by Montana rookie free agent Kirk Scrafford, who was making his first NFL start.

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Starting left guard Bruce Reimers wasn’t in uniform because of a severely sprained ankle. Right guard Ken Moyer was moved to the left side, and third-year reserve guard Paul Jetton started on the right side.

Despite being outmanned, the Bengals had moved into position for the upset with a cut-back running attack that featured a resurrected Ickey Woods. Woods, who started the season on injured reserve recovering from major knee surgery, ran 11 times for 73 yards.

The Bengals thought they had recovered Bo Jackson’s fumble off his first carry of the day in the first quarter, but that too, slipped from their grasp.

“It was a clear fumble,” Wyche said. “But the official said he blew his whistle, and so it’s not going to go. You hate for games like this to ever have an incident like that, but this one did.”

Wyche also took exception with the officials during the game when they failed to throw a flag after Raiders’ cornerback Lionel Washington knocked down receiver Tim McGee on a third down pass play.

“This is the one crew, the only crew during the course of the 1990 season that I complained about, and Art McNally (chief of officials) chose to assign them to this game,” Wyche said. “There’s only one official, and I won’t mention his name, that I have a real problem with. . . . He refused to shake my hand prior to the game. That bothers me.”

The Raiders move forward for an AFC championship encounter with the Bills in Buffalo.

“They are really going to have their hands full,” Esiason said. “The Buffalo Bills are everything as advertised.”

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And this week the noise will be made by the mitten-clapping Buffalo faithful.

“It might be twenty below in Buffalo, and it’s going to be tough for the Raiders,” Grant said. “But they have defense and they have a running game, and that’s what wins in the playoffs.”


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