Carson Palmer passed for 371 yards. (AP photo)
CLEVELAND - Carson Palmer got the Bengals passing game into the air Sunday with a 371-yard assault that should show the naysayers the quarterback is the least of the team's problems.
But Cincinnati's bid to assume position among the AFC North's movers and shakers underwent a bitter grounding here at Cleveland Browns Stadium with a slap-in-the-face 23-20 loss to the winless Browns.
It is the first time in a long time the Bengals got beat like this. Both lines got punished. They had won eight straight division games by figuring out the smashmouth formula. But they are a game behind the 3-1 Ravens and Steelers because their front lines took a step back.
There was a sick feeling in the locker room once the players knew what had escaped them. Palmer has seen plenty of these races and he knows what a loss to a struggling team means, especially with what awaits after the Oct. 17 bye: Teams with a combined record of 25-18.
"This one hurts. It's one of those seasons where we play a lot of good football teams," Palmer said. "It's hard not to get a 'W' from teams you should get a 'W' from. So we've got to find a way to dig deep. We've got a team that's kind of been up and down next week (Tampa Bay) and then we have a bye and then we have a really long stretch of really good teams we're going to be playing. Some big division games. Some big road games. So we have to suck it up and move past this game. This one really hurt. Because we wanted this. We were ready for this team. This one stings a little bit. A lot of bit. But we have to get past it."
Palmer got sacked four times and the proud defensive line that has given him the ball back for four fourth-quarter comebacks in the last seven division wins watched the Browns run out the last 4:41 with six runs by 250-pounder Peyton Hillis draining the clock for 38 yards.
"I would have bet anyone we would have won the game if we got the ball back," Palmer said. "Or at least tied it."
But the Bengals offensive line's poor protection gave away the ball twice, led to two fumbles for six huge points, and spoiled wide receiver Terrell Owens' 222-yard day that was the second biggest day in Bengals history next to Chad Ochocinco's 260 against San Diego in 2006.
"We let them hang around too long," said left end Robert Geathers. "They beat us up front."
Defensive tackle Domata Peko could only agree after Hillis became just the third back in the last 30 games to hit 100 against the Bengals. He did it barely, with 102 on 27 carries, but he did it at killing times. He finished off the opening drive of the second half with 17 of the 20 yards in the red zone for a touchdown with 8:54 left in third quarter that gave the Browns a 20-10 lead.
Then there was that last drive. Four here. Five there. Then the 24-yarder with 2:46 left that Hillis bounced outside to the vacant left perimeter of the Bengals defense, tying for Cleveland's longest play of the day.
"The play before we ran the exact same play and one of my guards (left guard Eric Steinbach) came and told me that if (an opening) isn't inside, be sure to bounce out because there is nothing out there," Hillis said. "I took his word for it and it ended up being good for me."
Meanwhile, the passing was big but it didn't follow the North formula. Running back Cedric Benson carried just 15 times for 60 yards, tying last season's low for a full game.
It seems like the Browns always beat up the Bengals physically whenever they seem to be at their most inept. The Bengals knew Cleveland wouldn't play like a 0-3 club. And the Browns didn't.
"They played our style of football. What they managed to do today is what we've been trying to do on a weekly basis," Benson said.
Hillis did what Benson usually does against the Browns. In his two previous games he went 4.4 yards per.
"The big run outside hurt us; he's a big boy," Peko said. "He's like Jamal Lewis. You have to tackle him low."
The usually reliable Chris Crocker got beat at safety on tight end Evan Moore's first NFL touchdown, a 24-yarder in which Crocker gave up the inside.
"I don't want to sound like a sore loser, but it was mostly us. We didn't execute," Crocker said. "We knew they were going to give us their best shot. They always play well against us. It's just one of those days. They had our number."
Even though Palmer had his best passing numbers since he lost an air war to Browns quarterback Derek Anderson up here on Sept. 16, 2007 with 401 yards, he found himself taking the blame for fumbles and sacks even though his offensive line continues to struggle. The Bengals tried rotating Dennis Roland and Andre Smith at right tackle and neither looked effective.
In a scoreless game in the middle of the first quarter and the Bengals clicking on their second series at the Cleveland 47, Palmer and Benson couldn't connect on a handoff as cornerback Eric Wright came on an edge blitz off the Bengals' right side.
"The corner was blitzing and the end was coming in and I tried to make a cut so I could make a play," Benson said. "I think when I changed my path the quarterback jumped back."
The fumble turned into Phil Dawson's 30-yard field goal. Then with the Bengals trailing, 20-13, left guard Nate Livings couldn't get to a stunt in time and linebacker Scott Fujita came free on Palmer's blindside and knocked the ball away as he pumped with his back to him. The Browns got it at the 13 and took Dawson's 22-yard field goal for a 10-point lead.
"Both those times I put our defense in a tough situation," Palmer said. "It's hard to do and you can't do that. They run the ball successfully and when you give them a short field like that, they're going to get at least a field goal."
Palmer said he should have felt Fujita coming on the stunt, but there's no way he could feel outside linebacker Matt Roth running him down for sack on what turned out to be the Bengals' last snap of the day. Roth blew by Roland on the third-and-13 play from the Browns 41 and when Palmer took off the other way out of the pocket Roth came from across the field to force a punt instead of getting into four-down territory.
One way to tell how badly the Browns won in the trenches was in the red zone. The Bengals failed to score touchdowns twice in three forays, running four times for five yards and taking a deadly sack late in the third quarter when they were desperately trying to cut it to 23-17 with a touchdown.
The Bengals have now been in the red zone 13 times this season and scored just five touchdowns. Palmer noted the Browns dropped eight and nine defenders in coverage and that was part of the problem when he got sacked trying to hit Ochocinco.
"It looked like they grabbed him," Palmer said. "I was getting ready to throw him the ball. He just kind of latched on to him. I thought he was going to come off him. Obviously he didn't and I've got to find a way to get rid of the ball."
Palmer was covering for a lot of people. All eight penalties seemed to hurt deeply, including what the Bengals felt were ticky-tacky penalties on safety Chinedum Ndukwe (a roughing call) that gave the Browns a field goal at the end of the half and a holding call on tackle Pat Sims that kept the Browns' last drive alive. And a pass interference call on The Ocho set up the sack on Cincinnati's final offensive snap.
"That doesn't win or lose football games," Lewis said of the penalties. "A lot of other things do and we need to make sure we take care of that and give them credit for making plays. They made more plays than we did today."