Updated: 8:15 p.m.
Chargers coach Norv Turner saw Bengals defensive tackle Shaun Smith before he boarded the bus to the airport Sunday night and told him, "See you next month."
Turner meant the playoffs and after his team beat the Bengals on a last-snap field goal, 27-24, to pretty much grab the AFC's second seed and bye, he must think they're good enough to win their first-round game.
But the 2009 AFC North championship hats and T-shirts have been in the box for three weeks now and the Bengals would dearly love to break them out in front of their fans at Paul Brown Stadium after Sunday's next-to-last game of the season against Kansas City as they bid for the first clinching ever at PBS.
Ticket manager Andrew Brown said the club is a little more than 3,000 short of a sellout that would mark the sixth straight season every game has appeared on local television. The Bengals have been further away from a sellout on Mondays at various points of the season and still sold out, yet this is a short week with Christmas on Friday.
The 3-11 Chiefs, of course, will put any such talk like that on a bulletin board and if any team knows to be aware of such spoilers it is the Bengals.
They played the part at 5-9 in 2007 when they basically knocked the Browns out of the playoffs, also in the next-to-last week of the season. Last year at 0-8 they sent 3-4 Jacksonville reeling and at 1-11-1 delivered a death knell to the 7-6 Redskins.
If the Chiefs are going to play desperately, so are the Bengals. Cincinnati doesn't want to go into The Meadowlands needing a win against the Jets in the Jan. 3 finale to make the playoffs. A win or tie against the Chiefs is the easiest way to make the playoffs. if the Bengals lose, the only way they can clinch a playoff berth is if Jacksonville loses or ties at New England, the Jets lose or tie at Indianapolis and Houston and Miami tie at Miami.
And the work week is fraught with distractions. Chris Henry's funeral Tuesday. Christmas Eve Thursday and Christmas Friday.
"We're about as healthy as we can be. We're going to come home to our home fans. It's a good week for us," said head coach Marvin Lewis in his Monday news conference. "It's a week that obviously is going to have a little bit different spin to it, with us traveling to New Orleans tomorrow, and obviously Christmas on Friday. But I think our team understands that and is mature enough to handle it, and we will. And we still have the opportunity to obtain our first and No. 1 goal, and that's to win this division. So that's key. So we'll be excited about that."
"We've been pretty good at eliminating distractions and blocking out distractions and being able to focus," quarterback Carson Palmer said Sunday after the 27-24 loss to the Chargers. "We've got a job to do. We've got to move on. It's going to be hard. It's going to be a long couple of weeks until the end of the regular season and going into the playoffs. But we've got to keep playing, keep our heads down and keep working and get through it."
Two starters who didn't play in San Diego and may not play against the Chiefs, defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) and safety Chris Crocker (ankle), are two of the reasons why the Bengals can feel confident if they return to Qualcomm Stadium because the duo should be back by then.
"We really need to win these last two games so we can get into the playoffs with some momentum," Crocker said. "We don't get into the playoffs if we don't win. These last three weeks we've had a chance to win it. It's crunch time. We're running out of games. The season would be for nothing if we didn't make the playoffs. Everything we've done to this point wouldn't matter."
Peko is excited for the chance to wrap it up at home.
"This would be a huge win for us. Not only winning the division but getting the chance for the playoffs," he said.
But Crocker knows things have to change after four games with 39 penalties and nine coming Sunday after 11 in Minnesota.
"You get beat because somebody beat you. From a physical standpoint or whether they out-executed you," Crocker said. "But you don't get beat by just giving up something. You might as well not show up if you don't know what to do ... those things are really inexcusable, especially at this point.
"I think now we're more upset at ourselves. The same mistakes. Putting ourselves in bad situations with penalties, ball security, awareness. We made a mistake in just about every phase yesterday and still we were in it. That just shows you we can play with the best of them."
Peko doesn't think the trip to New Orleans is going to be a distraction, but more of a trip of closure.
"We've got grown men in here, human beings," Peko said. "When someone passes away, it's going to be emotional, but we've got to move on after this funeral and go back to work. We'll be fine. There's a difference from football things and a game to real-life things. When Chris died it was a real-life thing and not a game. It won't be a distraction."
LEWIS DEFENDS HALL: At his Monday news conference head coach Marvin Lewis bristled when it was hinted that cornerback Leon Hall gave up some big plays in San Diego. "Leon only gave up one play," he said.
It was the last play before Nate Kaeding's winning 52-yard field goal when Hall let wide receiver Malcom Floyd catch a 15-yard out to stop the clock. On the 34-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Vincent Jackson, rookie safety Tom Nelson said he should have been giving Hall help.
"That's not on Leon. That was on me," Nelson said. "They had two vertical routes and I was leaning to the wrong guy, that's all. You've got to live and learn."
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer blitzed safety Chinedum Ndukwe on the Floyd play, knowing that the Chargers receivers had been sight-adjusting by running inside routes to beat the blitz and the Bengals wanted to make the Chargers throw it to the middle of the field.
"They could only beat us with two options," Zimmer said. "A go route and they throw it in the end zone, or the route they ran."
The Bengals youth in the secondary also was spotlighted on the play before that, when the Chargers hit a 20-yard pass down the seam with Nelson and rookie cornerback Morgan Trent converging on the play, along with Hall.
It sounded like Zimmer wanted more depth. As for rookie mistakes, Zimmer said, "It was a mistake, but we have no rookies now."
Nelson said the Bengals were in a Cover 3 and that the skinny post was "the coverage beater. He threw it right in the zone."
SUNDAY LEFTOVERS: First things first.
Palmer offered 314 reasons why the speculation about the fitness of his elbow has been just that (especially the 23-yard bolt to Quan Cosby on third and Hamilton County to set up Shayne Graham's tying field goal) and he showed up at his postgame media session with his arm wrapped in ice for precautionary reasons.
"It's been fine all year," he said.
But the red zone offense has not. Since leading the league with a 72-percent touchdown rate in the red zone on Nov. 8 at 18-for-25, the Bengals are five for their last 20 after failing three out of four times in San Diego. They know that just scoring two out of four times gives them the AFC North.
Palmer was just 2-for-6 passing in the red zone Sunday, which would indicate the receivers can't get open.
"That's one of (the reasons)," he said. "Decision-making on my part..."
Some observers suggest the Bengals have gotten away from running it in the zone inside the 20. They couldn't run it on one of their red-zone forays because it was at the end of the half and they never ran a snap in the red zone on another because of a penalty and fumble, so they ended up with just one red-zone run Sunday, a three yarder by running back Cedric Benson. Palmer also mentioned there have been some drops in there, and wide receiver Andre Caldwell had one Sunday.
The Chargers have three first-round cornerbacks and it shows up in the red zone. Palmer said the best way to score is getting out of the pocket and scrambling around to give someone time to break free. He tried to do that and took some shots into the end zone, but there was never much separation, even on wide receiver Laveranues Coles' two-yard touchdown catch.
Another thing the Bengals have to work on against Kansas City is the penalties. Nine more on Sunday gave them 47 in the last five games and the three they got right in a row before they even took a snap (a Dennis Roland false start, an illegal substitution, a delay of game) was downright embarrassing.
The third-quarter sequence conjured up questions about using so many personnel groups and the players' familiarity with the scheme. Tight end J.P. Foschi had a career day with seven catches for 82 yards that included a huge 21-yard catch from Palmer standing in his own end zone on first-and-12 to kick-start the tying drive. A head-scratching-six-minute-plus-where-has-that-been-all-month drive. But Foschi was upset with himself after the game, reminding he was the reason the Bengals were backed up because he was called for a hold on Benson's 10-yard run. It was also his false start at the 19 that drove the Bengals out of the red zone with 2:32 left.
"It doesn't matter how many catches I had. I had two penalties on that last drive," Foschi said after the game. "(On the false start) I thought I saw movement. I couldn't hear. It was loud. But not as loud as last week (in Minnesota). This was second."
The one thing the Bengals did was re-assert the passing game and Palmer said they knew they had to because of the Chargers' varied weapons: "We knew it wasn't going to be a 17-10 game. ... That's why we kind of went in with the mentality that we wanted to throw the ball. … We wanted to control field position and control the clock with the running game, but at the same time knowing we needed to take shots ... try to go slug for slug with that type of an offense."
After weeks of getting ripped for not even trying to go downfield, the Bengals' first call of the game was Palmer's incomplete bomb to Caldwell uncharacteristically lined up outside instead of in the slot. But Palmer said no statement was meant by the pass. The look the defense gave him dictated the throw.