Bengals magically close in on North


Tab Perry carries Ike Taylor down the sideline on his stunning 94-yard kickoff return that set up a Bengals TD. (AP photo)

In conjunction with our recent fan poll, we are taking a look back at the most memorable games of the Marvin Lewis era. Next up (12/4/05): The Bengals all but seal the AFC North division title with a big 38-31 over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. Here is a reprint of the game summary as written by bengals.com's Geoff Hobson.

Posted: 4:15 p.m.

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Rudi Johnson rumbled for 98 yards on 21 carries. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH - With the Bengals magic number now two and their first division title since 1990 as close as Christmas, it was the rookies who helped provide Sunday's historic 38-31 win over the Steelers here at hushed Heinz Field.

The Bengals defense forced four turnovers as the Bengals turned around history, leaving here with a 9-3 record, their first winning season in 15 years, and a two-game lead on the 7-5 Steelers. Any combination of Bengals wins and Steelers losses adding up to two gives Cincinnati the AFC North title as long as it beats Cleveland next Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

"We haven't been talking much about playoffs, but now we can step up to the front row and talk about some of the things we can accomplish," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We have the opportunity to do something special. We have the opportunity to get home-field advantage and get a week off."

With the Bengals clinging to a 31-24 lead, and the clock ticking under seven minutes, rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman came up with Cincinnati's third interception of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the Steelers 49.

On the ensuing Bengals possession, on third-and-four, rookie wide receiver Chris Henry caught a six-yard pass and when quarterback Carson Palmer hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 19-yard gain, the stage was set for Johnson's 14-yard touchdown run that he finished off by running over safety Troy Polamalu at the three-yard line with 6:09 left in the game. Johnson finished with 98 yards on 21 carries, missing a 100-yard game when he was tackled for a three-yard loss on his final carry.

"They might try to come up with something else so we answered the critics," said Chad Johnson, who didn't celebrate a touchdown but did salute the Bengals' first victory over a winning team. "We beat a great team in the Steelers and I think we showed something today by doing that."

Roethlisberger didn't quit in this thrilling duel with Palmer. He racked 386 yards on 29-of-41 passing despite the three picks. But he lost to Palmer's 11th 100 passer rating game in 12 outings this season, as Palmer finished 22-of-38 for 227 yards, three touchdowns and a 101.5 rating.

"It's oviously a huge win," Palmer said. "When you've got guys causing turnovers, guys running 90 yards with kicks, and the offensive line keeping guys off me, that's what happens."

Roethlisberger took the Steelers to a touchdown in just 3:10, finishing it off with a six-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward that made it 38-31 with 2:59 left.

But the Bengals offense could only take 30 seconds off the clock on the next series, which started out on a first-down pass intended for wide receiver Chad Johnson that was nearly picked off by Polamalu.

Enter another Bengals rookie. With a holding penalty and false start pushing the Steelers back to their own 15, David Pollack, rushing off the edge, sacked Roethlisberger and when end Justin Smith got him on fourth down, the long wait was over.

"We have to take care of business next week," said running back Rudi Johnson, after his second touchdown of the game secured the Bengals' fifth road win of the season. "This was a definitely a big step in taking control of the division. We talked about it in here. We talked about it at the hotel. We talked about it all week. This was the chance to separate us from the division. Now we have to keep playing."

Following Sunday's win Lewis announced to his players that they will have Monday off for the first time this season.

Offensive fireworks
The second half opened with a very un-AFC North flurry of points. The Bengals no-huddled down the field for kicker Shayne Graham's 30-yard field goal to take a 24-17 lead, but the Steelers came right back when Roethlisberger threw a perfect low dart to Ward working on cornerback Tory James for a tying 20-yard catch with 9:05 left in the third quarter. Ward added to the nostalgia of the day by doing the "Ickey Shuffle," a remnant of the Bengals' last playoff run. On a day the Bengals top three wide receivers caught 15 balls for 194 yards, Ward answered with 135 of his own on nine catches.

Then the future barged into the video on the next play when Bengals rookie wide receiver Tab Perry answered with the longest kick return of his career, a 94-yard NFL Films job in which he carried cornerback Ike Taylor on his back for the final 30 yards to the Steelers 3.

Rudi Johnson took two runs to punch it in and celebrated the Bengals 31-24 lead with 7:57 left in the third quarter by flipping the ball to the official.

At that point, the Bengals couldn't close the deal when another score very well could have killed the Steelers and their ponderous offense. An illegal block on Steelers guard Alan Faneca blew up one drive, Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal's eighth interception of the season behind Ward racing down the left sideline inside the Steelers 5 ended the next one, and Steelers running back Duce Staley's dropped pitch on third down ended the next.

But on each of the following series, the Bengals offense that had been purring for the first 37 minutes couldn't get a first down. Well, they got one when the Steelers were called for roughing Palmer, but that was it. They tried the No Huddle a few times and other times they didn't, but the results were the same.

Back and forth first half
Cincinnati led, 21-17 at halfime despite having the ball for less than 13 minutes. Palmer hit 15 of his first 19 passes for 152 yards, three for touchdowns, as the Bengals took a 21-14 lead late in the first half on his six-yard pass to Houshmandzadeh on a third-and-five crossing pattern.

After Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons's leaping interception and a 15-yard illegal block on wide receiver Antwaan Randle El put the ball on the edge of the red zone, Palmer couldn't hook up with a wide-open Houshmandzadeh when he underthrew him and Houshmandzadeh injured his groin slipping trying to get it.

But with Rudi Johnson responding, the Bengals shoved close and got Houshmandzadeh's second touchdown of the game as the Bengals added to their NFL-leading 122 points off turnovers.

The Bengals jacked their league-leading turnover total to 37 and Thurman tied the team rookie interception record of five held by safety Tommy Casanova in 1972 and cornerback Ray Horton in 1983. Horton was on the Pittsburgh sideline Sunday as an assistant secondary coach watching the beleagured Bengals defense step up with a strong effort in the clutch, led by reserve tackle Shaun Smith and rookie defensive end Jonathan Fanene. The Bengals held the Steelers to 95 yards rushing six weeks after Pittsburgh pummeled them for 221 yards on the ground.

"The guys up front won this game in my opinion," said Simmons, savoring the first winning season of his eight-year Bengals career.

But Pollack said after the Bengals sacked Roethlisberger twice, "it was our DBs that got the sacks. Ben had enough time to eat a hamburger back there."

The lead held up when the Bengals forced a red-zone field goal from 23 yards out from Jeff Reed at the halftime gun. Roethlisberger, wearing a splint on what some believe is a fractured thumb, wouldn't be denied. The Bengals defense played alertly and got another big turnover when Ward coughed up the ball on a hit by defensive end Robert Geathers and the ball was recovered by safety Kevin Kaesviharn at the Bengals 25.

Buoyed by the play of Jonathan Fanene's first appearance and (which included tacking running back Willie Parker for a four-yard loss on his first NFL snap), the Bengals didn't get gouged in the running game in holding the Steelers to 44 rushing yards in the half.

But they had no answer for Roethlisberger as he piled up 218 yards passing on 14-of-20. On the Steelers' last drive of the half, he launched a 41-yard pass to wide receiver Cedric Wilson that was thrown among James and safeties Kaesviharn and Ifeanyi Ohalete.

Still, Palmer continued to be deadly in the red zone, where he steered the Bengals to their 11th score in their last 13 tries inside the 20, hitting tight end Reggie Kelly off play-action with 10:15 left in the first half to tie it at 14 for Kelly's first touchdown since Game 4 of 2003. Perry's 46-yard return set up the score. Perry finished with 197 yards in returns, the fourth-highest single-game total in Bengals history.

Then with Fanene wreaking havoc on the next series, Simmons made a leaping interception on a ball he tipped to himself covering wide receiver Quincy Morgan. After his play on Parker, Fanene forced Roethlisberger out of the pocket and appeared to force him to fall on his thumb.

Less than two minutes after the Steelers took a 7-0 lead, Palmer, the NFL's leading passer, floated a 43-yard touchdown pass to Houshmandzadeh working one-on-one down the left sideline on cornerback Ricardo Colclough to tie it with 3:22 left in the first quarter. Houshmandzadeh yanked the ball from Colclough at about the Steelers 5 for his longest catch of the season.

Like most plays the Bengals ran in the first half, the score came out of the no-huddle. So did rookie wide receiver Chris Henry's career-high four catches in the half, and Chad Johnson added 40 more yards on three catches. Henry finsihed with five catches for 52 yards.

But it didn't stop Roethlisberger. Just 3:09 later, he clicked on a third-and-three slant to Morgan in the middle of the field and when Ohalete came across and bounced high off Morgan in failing to make the tackle, it turned into a 25-yard touchdown to give the Steelers the lead back at 14-7 with 13 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Bengals' worst fears of the Steelers running game taking a lead took hold with 4:46 left in the first quarter when running back Jerome Bettis walked in from one yard out over the Bengals right side for the 7-0 lead. Another fear surfaced early when Roethlisberger hooked up with big plays to tight ends Jerame Tuman (26 yards) and Heath Miller (21) to get the score. As usual, Ward was a factor all half with 70 yards on four catches.

Pregame notes
In an effort to stop the Steelers running game, the Bengals turned to Fanene in place of veteran Duane Clemons. The 6-4, 290-pound Fanene played for the first time since the Bengals took him in the seventh round out of Utah in the 2005 NFL Draft. Clemons (ribs) surfaced on the injury report late in the week, but word from the Bengals sideline was that he's healthy. The Bengals already made a move on the line earlier in the week when they ruled out injured tackle Bryan Robinson (foot) and started Shaun Smith in his spot on the left side for the second straight week.

Fanene is projected as a guy that can play both end and tackle and has apparently outdistanced 2004 fourth-round draft pick Matthias Askew, a pure tackle yet to be active this season. Fanene has won several "Lunch Buckets" handed out weekly to the Bengals' best practice players, and is apparently going to play both spots against the Steelers. The Bengals need somebody for Smith's old role in spelling the starting tackles for about 10 to 15snaps. They could also turn to Carl Powell, another guy that plays both spots.

The Bengals need to stop a running game that pounded them for 221 yards six weeks ago in the Steelers' 27-13 victory. They could do what they've done in the past against run-oriented teams and use four linebackers along with the four linemen. But one of the backers won't be Nate Webster. He's inactive in his first game off the physically unable to play (PUP) list, but they could also use Hannibal Navies or Caleb Miller.

Also inactive Sunday were cornerback Greg Brooks, fullback Nick Luchey, and wide receiver Kelley Washington.

Extra cornerback Willie Williams and running back Verron Haynes were down for the Steelers. Roethlisberger made his 21st regular-season NFL start. As he came off the field during warmups, he told a reporter that his thumb was bothering him, fueling more speculation that the splint is protecting a break.

The Bengals were at full strength on special teams, a huge factor against the always explosive and creative Steelers who try to use short fields to bolter their running game . Punt returner Antwaan Randle El is always a threat, even though Pittsburgh is ranked 18th in the league. Morgan had a quick start returning kicks, but has since cooled with the Steelers No. 26 ranking. The Bengals coverage teams have remained consistent all season and came in No. 2 covering kicks and No. 13 covering punts.

The Bengals introduced their defense as team in their all white uniforms on a wintry, cloudy day in the 35-degree range. There was snow overnight but none on the field. The Bengals sent out for captains defensive tackle John Thornton, center Rich Braham, right tackle Willie Anderson, defensive end Justin Smith, and Navies.

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