With running back Cedric Benson reaching the 25-carry, 111-yard plateau on the last play of the season that mattered with a 13-yarder Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals won their third straight, 16-6, over the Chiefs to finish the season 4-11-1.
But head coach Marvin Lewis looked as subdued as he ever has after a loss in giving no clues what happens Monday in the first day of the offseason.
About all that is clear is that the Bengals finished out of the AFC North basement and they play the fellow third-place Texans at home next year. And, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, inactive Sunday when he reaggravated his rib injury, made it clear he doesn't want the franchise tag as he heads into free agency.
"It's a one-year thing and they have no intention of signing you," said Houshmandzadeh, who also said he won't show up for the spring workouts if he's tagged.
In a question about Benson's future with the team, Lewis said, "We want everybody back. Blanket answer to a blanket question."
Lewis is expected to be under the blanket with two years left on his contract, but he still has a meeting Monday with Bengals president Mike Brown to set the course of the offseason.
"I want to be playing," Lewis said when asked if he needs a break. "You don't work in a profession such as this and be glad that the season is over."
Ryan Fitzpatrick became the first Bengals quarterback since Boomer Esiason in 1997 to lead the Bengals to three wins in the final three games on 18-of-30 passing for 129 yards with no interceptions for the third straight game, and a rating of 70 to go with his 29 yards on seven scrambles.
Benson became the first Bengals runner to have back-to-back 100-yard games since Rudi Johnson Dec. 11-18, 2005 against the Browns and Lions, respectively. The Bengals are 22-1 under Lewis when a back carries it at least 25 times.
"Finishing strong at 3-0 ... one word: Liberation," said right guard Bobbie Williams. "It's very liberating. We deserve it, because we work hard. We had a lot of balls that bounced the other way, but finishing this way shows that the guys that are here are fighting.
"Finishing this way going into the offseason at least doesn't leave us with a bitter taste. At least with the guys we have here, we know we can get it done. So maybe that will open up some eyes for the coaching staff. I know there are going to be some changes, but at least it will bring a closer look at the guys that are here ... and we know that we can win against good teams in this league."
On the other side of the ball, the Bengals defense punctuated their turnaround season under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer by holding Chiefs running back Larry Johnson to 18 yards on 10 carries.
After the Bengals turned to the formula that won the last two games to take a 13-0 halftime lead by holding the ball for 21:36, they turned to their defense that watched their bid to make history thwarted with 2:20 left.
Including penalties, it took the Chiefs seven tries to score a touchdown after they reached the one-yard-line on quarterback Tyler Thigpen's 32-yard pass to wide receiver Dwayne Bowe running past cornerback David Jones.
The Bengals, looking for the first back-to-back shutouts in their history, stoned K.C. on the next three snaps, one play a direct snap to running back Larry Johnson.
Then on fourth down, Bowe muscled cornerback Leon Hall for a touchdown, but was called for a nine-yard offensive pass interference penalty that gave the Chiefs a fourth down at the 10.
Andre Caldwell had career highs of five catches and 34 receiving yards. (Bengals photo)
Earlier, middle linebacker Dhani Jones had set up Shayne Graham's third field goal of the game, a 43-yarder that made it 16-0, when he stoned rookie running back Jamaal Charles on a run blitz just as he was handed the ball. After forcing the fumble, Jones wrestled the ball away from Thigpen at the Kansas City 34.
The Bengals offense, cooled off after a torrid first half, could only get nine yards and needed Graham.
Graham, like Houshmandzadeh a free agent, went 3-for-3 to finish the season 21-for-24 on field goals. But the most accurate kicker in Bengals history called it "bittersweet."
"I want to be back. I don't want to change operations. I love these guys," Graham said. "But if I have to move on, I'll move on, but we'll see what happens."
The closest the Bengals have ever come to back-to-back shutouts came in 2006, when they followed up a 30-0 win over Cleveland with a 13-7 win over Baltimore in which the Ravens didn't score until 59 seconds left.
They did tie a franchise record with nine straight quarters without allowing a touchdown, dating back to Oct. 8-29, 1995.
Bengals defense dominates
But it was a solid first half for the offense as Benson picked up 63 of the Bengals 124 rushing yards and a touchdown on the way to a season-high 204 yards rushing.
Off their shutout in Cleveland, the Bengals defense pitched another scoreless half with a perfect five-for-five on third down while holding the Chiefs to 12 yards rushing on five carries and Gonzalez, the 10-time Pro Bowler, without a catch.
After giving up their first third-down conversion with 6:30 left in the third quarter when Hall slipped covering Bowe, Gonzalez made his first catch on third-and-13 to convert another. But Hall had good coverage on wide receiver Mark Bradley on the next third-down conversion to force a punt.
Also big was safety Chris Crocker, whose blitz forced an incompletion. Also in that drive, Crocker broke up a pass intended for Gonzalez when he cut underneath a route. Gonzalez finished with just five catches for 53 yards as Houshmandzadeh kept the AFC's third-down receiving title away from him even without playing.
"We wanted to make sure we had had him double-covered with a safety and linebacker," said safety Chinedum Ndukwe.
The Bengals defense, which allowed just 100 yards in the first three quarters and allowed just 220 for the day, began the fourth quarter again frustrating a Chiefs offense that scored 31 points against Miami last week. On third-and-three, end Antwan Odom and Ndukwe dumped Larry Johnson for a three-yard loss and on fourth-and-three cornerback Jamar Fletcher knocked down a pass to give the Bengals the ball at their own 40.
Benson took a hit to the head early in the second half, but he returned a short time later and ripped off a 10-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals had fun with rookie wide receiver Andre Caldwell with Chad Ocho Cinco and Houshmandzadeh on the bench with injuries. On third-and-two from the Bengals 15 with a 10-0 lead in the middle of the second quarter, Caldwell lined up in the shotgun and ran up the middle. But even though he was short, the Bengals got a first down when Chiefs defensive end Jason Babin picked up a 15-yard penalty on a facemask call.
"I like taking the snap right away. I'm comfortable at quarterback," said Caldwell after his breakout game of five catches for 34 yards and four runs for 49.
And, it sparked Cincinnati's second huge drive in as many weeks, a 16-play mush job that held the ball for 7:46 and yielded Graham's 30-yard field goal just after the two-minute warning.
Caldwell converted a third-and-five in the drive with rookie running back James Johnson picking up a blitz and Fitzpatrick hitting Caldwell running away from rookie cornerback Brandon Flowers across the field. Aided by left tackle Anthony Collins, Caldwell picked up 11 yards on a screen. Fitzpatrick, 7-of-9 in the drive for 63 yards before he threw the last one away to preserve the field goal, also hit wide receiver Chris Henry for a 16-yard slant on first down.
In finishing the half with 79 yards rushing (44) and receiving (35), Caldwell began the TD drive with a 26-yard highlight run off a reverse. He went left and got hemmed in along the line of scrimmage before he reversed field and used a nice nudge block by Fitzpatrick on the edge to get the Bengals out of a hole at their own 11.
After Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr picked up a 31-yard pass interference penalty trying to cover Henry on a bomb down the sideline, the Bengals got the ball at the 16 and Benson did the rest. Following right tackle Dennis Roland in his first NFL start, Benson ripped off a 14-yard run and got tripped at the last minute. On the next snap he went up the middle standing up for a two-yard touchdown run to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead with 11 minutes left in the half. Another big play in the drive was Fitzpatrick's third-down pass to James Johnson.
Bengals on board first
In the first quarter, Fitzpatrick converted four first downs and threw in a 13-yard scramble in which he left a Chiefs defensive back flat-footed to set up Graham's 38-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 3-0 lead with 1:40 left in the first quarter.
That was the last play of a drive that featured five runs and five passes, highlighted by wide receiver Glenn Holt going low to grab a Fitzpatrick bullet for a 10-yard gain at the Bengals 30 to convert a third down. Benson, finishing the first quarter with 41 yards on eight carries, then ripped off runs of 13 and eight yards. But the Bengals couldn't convert when the eight-yarder gave them a second-and-two.
Fitzpatrick threw another block to help spring Caldwell for a 17-yard gain on a reverse on the first snap of the game, but he threw two incompletions on third- and fourth- and six as the first drive stalled at the Kansas City 33.
On third down, Fitzpatrick made a good throw to Holt that probably should have been caught at about the Chiefs 20.
The Bengals got a big defensive boost right away on the first series after the Chiefs picked up nearly 20 yards on their first two snaps. But on the third play, safety Mike Doss blew up Bowe with a shot in the chest to knock the ball out for an incompletion and the Bengals went on to force a punt when Ndukwe came up to dump Larry Johnson for a two-yard loss.
Off their shutout in Cleveland and the 20-13 win over Washington, the Bengals racked up eight straight quarters without allowing a touchdown when they went into the half on plays like this early in the second quarter: Crocker blitzed on third-and-11 and forced Thigpen into a high incompletion. Defensive tackle Domata Peko set up that sequence when he dropped Larry Johnson for a one-yard loss on first down.
Thigpen, leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing, had no attempts in the half while Fitzpatrick had 17 yards on two rushes and then he started the second by running away out of a sack on third-and-five when he left Babin missing for an eight-yard gain.
Bengals linebacker Darryl Blackstock wasn't expected to return after he hurt his knee blocking on the second half kickoff.
While the defense tied a franchise record, punter Kyle Larson broke a dubious one with 100 punts in a season, surpassing the 94 set by Daniel Pope in 2000. The 204 points are the third fewest in history behind only the '00 Bengals (185) and '93 Bengals (187).
PREGAME NOTES: Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh missed his first game of the season and his possible Paul Brown Stadium finale Sunday against the Chiefs when he joined fellow wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco on the inactive list with a back injury. It marked the first time they had been on the inactive list together since the duo joined the Bengals via the 2001 draft.
Houshmandzadeh, the club's third all-time leading receiver who is unsigned for next season, has nursed a bunch of bumps and bruises the past six weeks or so with his back, rib and hand. He practiced Wednesday and Thursday but surfaced on the injury report (back) after Friday's practice, in which he was limited. After two touchdowns in the last two games, Chris Henry got his second start of the season.
Word was that Houshmandzadeh reinjured his rib during the week.
Cornerback Leon Hall figured to take Houshmandzadeh's place returning punts.
After having his skein of 55 straight games with a catch snapped last week in Cleveland, Houshmandzadeh finished the season with 92 catches for 904 yards. He missed out on a third straight 1,000-yard season and finished eight catches shy of becoming the ninth player to have back-to-back 100-catch seasons.
Also down for the Bengals was running back Kenny Watson (hamstring), left tackle Levi Jones (back) and right tackle Stacy Andrews (knee). The Bengals face the Chiefs' NFL-worst sack attack with what amounts to two rookie tackles. Anthony Collins is making his sixth start at left and Dennis Roland is making his first at right.
The offense needed to score 12 points Sunday to avoid becoming the third Bengals team in history not to reach 200 points in a season.
But they're doing it with a starting lineup that looks more like a lineup in the third quarter of a preseason game. Six Opening Day starters were on the inactive list, including the club's running back (Chris Perry with a groin injury), its quarterback (Carson Palmer is the No. 3 for the 12th game), both tackles and both receivers.
Just like last week, in anticipation of a smashmouth game, the Bengals moved tackle John Thornton off the bench and started him at left end and moved Jonathan Fanene to right end.
The Bengals are coming off their best rushing game of the season with 191 yards, but it will be that much tougher Sunday even though the Chiefs are ranked 28th in the NFL against the rush. Kansas City likes to play with eight men-in-the-box and that could grow with the Chiefs daring the receivers to beat them.
Head coach Marvin Lewis chose to introduce the offense as a unit dressed in their orange jerseys and white pants and hope the 5-1 record corresponds. SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty was the game captain for the coin toss that the Bengals won and deferred to the second half.