Madieu Williams pulls down one of Cincinnati's five interceptions. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)CHICAGO - The Bengals waited 15 years to go 3-0 and 29 years to rack up five interceptions. But on Sunday here at a dark, rainy Soldier Field straight out of Grantland Rice, they wasted no time re-writing history for an undefeated present.
"This was a big game for our team," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "Now we know we can do it. This was a team that was supposed to run all over us, dominate us, and beat us up on defense. But it was our defense that made all the big plays. That's big for us. It's something special."
The Bengals reached that pie-in-the-sky 3-0 mark for the first time since they last went to the playoffs in 1990 with a 24-7 victory over the Bears here before 62,045 marked by six more turnovers that officially brought the Cincinnati defense into the limelight in accomplishing a feat no unit has done in 34 years.
A week after pilfering Vikings Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper for five interceptions, the Bengals did the same to Bears rookie quarterback Kyle Orton in becoming the first team to have back-to-back five interception games since the 1971 Cleveland Browns.
In jacking their NFL-leading total to 12 interceptions, the Bengals set a club record for most interceptions in two games with 10. That's one more than they had during the 2002 season, the year before head coach Marvin Lewis arrived.
"I've never seen anything like it," said cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who had a hand in two of the six turnovers. "They say when it rains it pours, and right now it's raining interceptions."
O'Neal, coming off an AFC Player of the Week outing with three interceptions, had another and added a fumble recovery midway through the fourth quarter that finished off another defensive masterpiece. Don't look now, but the Bengals are on pace to allow 149 points, an NFL record for a 16-game season.
"Now you have to start writing about this defense, OK?" said defensive tackle Bryan Robinson. "You've seen it now two games in a row. It's not a fluke; not two games in a row."
Free safety Madieu Williams led the team with eight tackles and had one of the interceptions, how first of the season. "We are coached that when the ball is in the air, we have as much of a right to it as the receiver," Williams said.
Defense stays hot
It was Bears head coach Lovie Smith's defense that led the NFL in third-down conversions last year, but the Bengals didn't allow a third-down conversion until two and half minutes left in the third quarter and for the second time in as many weeks they blanked a team in the first three quarters. They lost the shutout on running back Thomas Jones's two-yard touchdown run a minute and a half into the fourth quarter that made it 17-7.
Throw in two Carson Palmer touchdown passes to wide receiver Chad Johnson (the 18-yarder elicited an end-zone jig and after the 40-yarder he did a couple of pushups), and Bengaldom is dancing in its first unbeaten September since Cincinnati secured the 1990 AFC Central Division title with that 3-0 start.
"It's always good to win on the road in the NFL," said Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis, whose team has won its first two road games for the first time since the 1988 Super Bowl season. "But we haven't done anything yet. (The players) are telling me that now. That's what they told me right after the game. We haven't done anything yet."
With the Bengals trying to stave off a relentless Bears defense and clinging to a 10-0 lead, O'Neal came up with the fifth interception early in the third quarter when he stepped in front of Bears wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad at the Bengals 30.
Palmer then pump faked and hit rookie wide receiver Chris Henry with a pretty over-the-shoulder pass in the end zone for his first NFL touchdown catch, a 36-yarder that made it 17-0 with 7:03 left in the third quarter.
Also for the second time in as many weeks, the Bengals had problems with penalties. One offensive pass interference penalty wiped out a touchdown and an unnecessary roughness call on Robinson and a pass interference call on rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman highlighted the Bears touchdown drive.
Carson to Chad puts it away
But the Bengals responded quickly and succinctly. Chad Johnson, who left the game with cramps late in the first half, skated past cornerback Nate Vasher at the line of scrimmage on the outside, raised his hand to Palmer's attention and Palmer dropped in his third touchdown pass of the game on a 40-yarder to make it 24-7 early in the fourth quarter.
Palmer finished 16-of-23 passing for 169 yards and, maybe more importantly against the opportunistic Bears, he had no interceptions in his sixth straight game with a 100-plus passer rating at 130.3.
"You want to take the ball downfield. You want to throw for 300 yards. You want to make explosive plays on offense," Palmer said. "But sometimes against some teams you don't have to do that. We did a good job controlling the ball and the game."
The Bengals jumped on the big stats in the first half with four interceptions, and immediately turned one of them into the first red-zone touchdown against Chicago this season in taking a 10-0 halftime lead.
But that was the only time the Bengals could parlay a touchdown out of their league-leading assault on interceptions and turnovers in the half as the Bears kept Palmer in check with a sack and numerous pressures while holding running back Rudi Johnson to 22 yards on 11 carries before he finished with 84 on 25 carries.
The Bengals ended the half with two Pro Bowlers on the bench. After appearing to give up a sack to Bears left end Adewale Ogunleye, right tackle Willie Anderson left with a back strain and his return was doubtful. Anderson did return to play in the second half and both he and Lewis said after the game that he would play next Sunday against the Texans. Chad Johnson had to exit for the second time in three games with a cramp, but he returned to finish with three catches for 77 yards.
The Bears, who came into the game second to the Bengals in NFL turnovers generated, got a big one late in the half when middle linebacker Brian Urlacher forced the Bengals' first lost fumble of the season when he stripped running back Chris Perry at the end of a pass play with 3:53 left.
But the Bears couldn't cash in either. Chicago finally got running back Thomas Jones in gear, ripping off 43 of his 79 first-half yards on the drive. But a late hit called on rookie receiver Mark Bradley killed the drive and Doug Brien hooked his 39-yard field-goal try left for his fifth miss in his last six kicks dating back to the Jets loss to San Diego in the 2004 playoffs.
A week after coming up with their most interceptions since a 1976 game, the Bengals went right at it again.
On the first snap after linebacker Brian Simmons's diving interception on Orton's first throw of the game, Palmer threaded an 18-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson slanting through the coverage of strong safety Mike Brown and cornerback Charles Tillman.
The interception on the Bears' first offensive play of the game was truly a team effort. Cornerback Tory James and strong safety Kevin Kaesviharn sandwiched wide receiver Justin Gage to pop the ball in the air. Simmons dove, juggled the ball and pulled it to his chest as he went to the ground. When Simmons scrambled to his feet to run, Gage forced a fumble that was picked up by rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman who rambled 23 yards to the Bears 18.
Putting pressure on the rookie
Orton came out rattled after last week's seamless effort against Detroit. On the play following a fumbled snap, he faced third-and-11 and threw it to cornerback Keiwan Ratliff plastered in front of wide receiver Bobby Wade.
But the Bengals could only get a field goal out of it when Palmer's five-yard roll-out pass to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on third down was negated when wide receiver Chad Johnson was called for pass interference while clearing a path in front of Houshmandzadeh.
The Bengals escaped on the next play when Palmer tried to jam in a pass to tight end Matt Schobel in the end zone and got it too close to Mike Brown. But Brown dropped it and Shayne Graham kicked a 33-yard field goal with 9:29 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals got the ball to the Chicago 3 when Palmer appeared to check off at the line on second-and-12. With the Bears loaded up for a blitz, he saw Houshmandzadeh beating Tillman down the sideline in one-on-one coverage and Tillman was called for interference.
Orton threw his third pick when he tried to deke James on a pump fake one-on-one with Bradley, but he underthrew it and James leaped to grab it. Free safety Madieu Williams got the fourth pick on a ball Orton threw up for grabs at the Bengals 46 with 5:42 left, but an illegal formation robbed Houshmandzadeh of a third-down conversion on a 10-yard sideline pass and the Bengals had to punt.
The Bengals went with the same lineup they used to bludgeon the Vikings last week, sticking with Henry in place of Kelley Washington after Henry had a four-catch, 45-yard debut. Also inactive for the second straight week was fullback Nick Luchey and offensive tackle Stacy Andrews as the Bengals tried to counter the speed of the Bears special teams with linebackers and defensive backs on a day that began in a drizzle, rained off and on in the first half, and came down harder at the beginning of the second.
As the Bengals stalked their first 3-0 start in 15 years at the curious new Soldier Field (Captain Kirk meets Papa Bear Halas), the strategies looked to be as clear as Rudi Johnson's 110 yard-per-game average, Thomas Jones's 4.9 yards per carry, and the Bengals rush defense average of 5.4 yards.
With Bears head coach Lovie Smith a disciple of Tony Dungy's notorious "Tampa Two," in which defenses don't commit the eighth man close to the line a two-deep zone, the Bengals wanted to turn to Johnson to run the ball. But Palmer also had to keep his 71.6 percent completion percentage pretty close to intact if the Bears decided to shut down the run and dared him to beat their one-on-one coverage on the outside.
With the Bears looking to protect Orton in his third NFL start, the Bengals prepared for a heavy dose of Jones and rookie Cedric Benson. Since the Bengals have trailed for just 5:53 this season, foes have thrown the ball twice more than they've run it against them with an 80-32 pass-to-run ratio coming into the game.
Another key stat, turnovers, was a dominant theme in the first half between teams that have generated the NFL's most turnovers (the Bengals have 10, Bears eight) and the best turnover differential (the Bengals are plus seven and the Bears plus six).
Ogunleye looked good for the Bears after he left last week's game with a sprained ankle in the first quarter. He practiced Friday after missing Wednesday and Thursday.
Also inactive for the Bengals again were cornerback Rashad Bauman, center Eric Ghiaciuc, and defensive linemen Matthias Askew and Jonathan Fanene. That left them with seven offensive linemen, nine defensive backs, and all seven linebackers.
In keeping with last week's home opener, the Bengals offense took the field during pregame introductions as a unit. Head coach Marvin Lewis sent out for his captains left guard Eric Steinbach (a Greater Chicago native), left end Justin Smith, Rudi Johnson, wide receiver Kevin Walter and James.
Sunday's game marked the beginning of a tester stretch in which the Bengals play three of the next four on the road. With the AFC's worst road record during the last decade, that would look to be more than a daunting challenge. But they came into Chicago 4-1 in their last five road games.