Posted: 4:10 p.m.
Chad Johnson hauls in the score that gave the Bengals a 24-20 lead in the final period. (AP Photo/John Russell)
The 5-1 Bengals now streak back to Paul Brown Stadium next Sunday with a game and a half lead for the first of two AFC North championship games against the 3-2 Steelers.
"It's big," said Head Coach Marvin Lewis of the difference between 5-1 and 4-2. "The first thing out of their mouths (after the game) was 'Pittsburgh.' "
With word spreading through the Bengals locker room that the Steelers lost in overtime to Jacksonville, Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson shook his head.
"All it means," Anderson said, "is they're going to come in mad and fired up."
Palmer threw two touchdown passes and has not not thrown an interception in 115 consecutive pass attempts. His passer rating of 121.2 Sunday tied Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's NFL record of nine straight games with a rating of 100 or better.
"It's tough to have a good rating and success as a quarterback if the defense is giving up a lot of points," Palmer said, "but they're not. They're keeping us in games and I haven't had to throw nine out of every 10 plays. It says a lot about the O-line that I'm not getting sacked and on top of that I've got guys getting open."
Led by Anderson's blanking of NFL sack leader Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Bengals allowed just one sack to the Titans, the AFC leaders in sacks.
With the Bengals trailing 20-17 with 4:19 left, Palmer capped the club's first fourth-quarter comeback of the season when he hit wide receiver Chad Johnson on a 15-yard touchdown pass over the head of rookie cornerback "Pacman" Jones. Jones was called for pass interference, just like he was on the previous play, a 34-yard flag in Johnson's favor that lifted a Bengals team that came into the game leading the NFL in penalties.
A week after his worst game of the year, Johnson answered with his best on eight catches for 135 yards. With the Titans ditching their game-long plan of double covering Johnson and inching up to stop the run, Palmer and Johnson made eye contact at the line of scrimmage, made some hand signals and Johnson froze Jones on a double move as he ran to the corner.
The Bengals came up with two of their three turnovers in the final 3:19. James sealed when he popped running back Chris Brown on a short pass and stole the ball from him at the Titans 27. James kept motoring all in the same motion until he got hauled down at the 1, where running back Rudi Johnson bucked into the end zone with 2:26 left in the game to make it academic.
The running of Rudi in the second half opened trhe way for Chad in the final drive. For the seventh time in eight games, Rudi rushed for at least 80 yards, getting exactly that Sunday 18 carries. He got 52 of them in the second half on nine carries.
The defense stepped up big after giving up a quick, seven-play touchdown drive midway through the third quarter that gave Tennessee a 17-10 lead.
The Bengals came up with their first answer of the second half in what many called the turning point of the game when James broke up a short pass to wide receiver Tyrone Calico and the tip went to rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman and he scored his second touchdown of the season on a 30-yard return that tied it at 17 with 1:01 left in the third quarter.
"I was lucky today," said Thurman, who also had six tackles and two passes defensed. "I looked up and the ball was coming at me and I just took off. That came at a perfect time for us."
Costy penalties surface again
Yellow fever again bit the Bengals at The Coliseum in the second half when they lost another touchdown because of a holding call on tight end Matt Schobel on the opening drive of the second half and later lost a 43-yard pass play to running back Chris Perry on right guard Bobbie Williams's holding call.
The Williams call cost the Bengals points when they had the ball taken back from the Titans in a game they trailed, 17-10. But at least they got a 21-yard-field goal from Shayne Graham after the first hold. That drive was also marred by a delay of game penalty after the Bengals rolled to the Titans 5 when Chad Johnson had to hold up down the middle and outjump old friend Lamont Thompson on a 35-yard pass play.
Perry, who had his best game as a pro, bounced a play outside at the 10 and veered around the left side and beat the defense to the flag, but the touchdown was nullified on the Schobel hold. It was the fourth touchdown taken away by a flag this season, and the second for Perry, who had an 86-yard touchdown catch called back against Minnesota on a holding call.
But Perry, who caught nine balls for 45 yards, ran a shovel pass for nine yards to the goal line. Cincinnati couldn't get the ball in, though, as Perry lost two yards and Graham had to tie the game at 10 on his 21-yarder with 7:28 left in the third quarter.
Tennessee answered with a seven-play touchdown drive that made it 17-10 when running back Chris Brown walked in around the left side for a nine-yard score with 4:32 left in the quarter. Brown was a weapon in Tennessee's dink-and-dunk offense, running for 84 yards on 18 carries.
The Bengals fell behind, 20-17, with 4:54 left in the game on Rob Bironas's 29-yard field goal. The big play came when McNair dropped a third-and-two pass over James's head to wide receiver Brandon Jones for a 25-yard completion, but James had the last laugh.
"They were probably waiting for us to do what we have done against them and self-destruct," Anderson said. "But this is a different team. The Titans are one of the teams we always envy, that has a good coach (Jeff Fisher) that could coach an entire team. That's what we've got now."
Palmer cool under pressure
With the Titans threatening to blow the Bengals back to Cincinnati on the winds of a 10-0 lead with 2:03 left in the first half, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer willed his team back into the game on a nine-play touchdown drive in which he completed all nine of his pass attempts for 79 yards to bring the Bengals within 10-7 at the half.
Palmer rolled right and hit running back Chris Perry on a one-yard score with 33 seconds left for Perry's first NFL touchdown. The play finished off Palmer's blistering half of work that included 124 yards on 14-of-15 passing.
Until the last drive, Palmer's long-ball game had been shackled and he could only get an 18-yarder to wide receiver Chad Johnson. But with the Titans blanketing Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh inactive for the second straight week with a hand injury, Palmer turned to his Nos. three and four receivers in the last drive.
Working out of the slot, Kevin Walter matched his catches the previous week in the drive when he three caught balls for 50 yards, including the last two for 39 that put the ball on the 1.
Kelley Washington caught a come-backer for 11, and Johnson, finishing the half with three catches for 40 yards, added a seven-yard catch.
Until then, it was like all the Bengals-Titans games you've seen.
The Bengals couldn't establish the line of scrimmage and the Titans did as Brown shredded the Cincinnati defense in pounding to that 10-0 lead.
With Tennessee hoarding the ball for 16:12 minutes of he half, it looked to be a formidable double-digit lead built when the Titans sandwiched a scoring drive around a stuff of Bengals running back Rudi Johnson on a fourth-and-one from the Titans 40.
With his team trailing, 7-0, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis opted to go for the first down early the second quarter and saddled up Johnson behind left guard Eric Steinbach, left tackle Levi Jones, and tight end Matt Schobel, but Johnson got stoned for no gain.
The Titans then turned it around on their second double-digit scoring drive with Brown slashing for 17 yards on four carries and backup Jarrett Payton leaping into the fray on a 12-yard bolt up the middle.
The Bengals held on third-and-five from their 6 when defensive tackle Shaun Smith pressured quarterback Steve McNair into a quick throw that went over the head of wide receiver Brandon Jones covered by cornerback Tory James in the end zone.
Bironas's 24-yard field goal with 2:10 left in the half made it 10-0.
When the Bengals couldn't finish off a 10-play drive that consumed nearly six minutes in the middle of the first quarter (from their own 7 to the Titans 34 where Shayne Graham's 52-yard field-goal try went wide), the Titans surprised no one by aiming their 10-play drive into the heart of the Cincinnati run defense. They grabbed the momentum when Thurman bounced off Brown on Brown's five-yard touchdown run.
Brown's first touchdown of the season came two minutes into the second quarter and capped a drive of 5:35 in which the longest play was an 11-yard reverse to wide receiver Courtney Roby. Brown, who finished the half with 55 yards on 12 carries, had 12 in that drive, plus a seven-yard catch.
Houshmandzadeh didn't play, but free safety Madieu Williams and defensive end Duane Clemons got the call for the Bengals as they tried to bounce back from their first loss of the season. As expected, center Rich Braham returned to the starting lineup after missing the bulk of the last two games.
Williams didn't start after injuring his shoulder 16 days ago late in a practice falling on his shoulder. He said earlier in the week he wasn't sure how the injury was going to respond. He may need surgery after the season on his labrum, but he said he wanted to see if he could play with it for as long as he could.
It looked like the Bengals tried to counter the Titans running game with a 4-4-3 alignment at times in which Hannibal Navies was the extra linebacker, but the Titans still ripped off 5.1 yards per carry.
As they did for the last two games, Kevin Kaesviharn and Ifeanyi Ohalete started at free and strong safety, respectively.
Clemons, making his first appearance of the year after spending the first four games benched because of a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy, hoped to give the Bengals pass rush a boost. Sandwiched between the seven-sack effort against the Texans two weeks ago are sackless games against the Bears and Jaguars. The Bengals also had no sacks in the opener in Cleveland, and had none in the first half Sunday.
In order to make room for Clemons, Lewis opted to make inactive Carl Powell, a guy that plays end and tackle while Clemons only moves inside on passing downs.
Houshmandzadeh, hurt near the end of his 105-yard outing against the Texans, missed his second straight game. Walter, who had a touchdown in the opener and continues his solid play on special teams, ended up Sunday night's 23-20 loss in Jacksonville with as many catches (three) as penalties. But he came up big Sunday and caught four balls for 65 yards in the game's first three quarters.
Rookie Chris Henry, who had a 25-yard touchdown catch and a 47-yard catch against the Jags last week, started in place of Houshmandzadeh.
Also inactive for the Bengals were cornerback Rashad Bauman, fullback Nick Luchey, tight end Tony Stewart, and defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene and Matthias Askew.
McNair ended up on the injury report late in the week, but one of the certified toughest men in the NFL started his 123rd game. Tennessee looked to be gearing up for a smash-mouth game when it started an extra tight end in Ben Troupe.
Without Stewart (back), the Bengals were missing a solid run blocker, and Rudi Johnson could manage just 28 yards on nine carries in the first half.
Lewis sent out for his captains cornerback Deltha O'Neal, fullback Jeremi Johnson, linebacker Hannibal Navies, tight end Reggie Kelly, and defensive end Robert Geathers.