Bengals start fast to finish 2-0


4:15 p.m.

The Bengals' offense came out introduced as a team and then dazzled the shell-shocked Vikings with a glittering array of individual performances on both sides of the ball in a make-a-statement 37-8 victory posted amid the orange din of the 65,763 at the Paul Brown Stadium opener.

Quarterback Carson Palmer hit his first nine passes, and threw for the third 300-yard day of his career while wide receiver Chad Johnson racked up his 14th career 100-yard game, and cornerback Deltha O'Neal tied a club record with three of the Bengals' five interceptions of Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper.

The defense, stalking its first shutout in 16 years and 246 games, put on a sideshow of its own in its bid to break the longest shutout skein in the NFL. Culpepper snapped the shutout with 3:17 left in the game on a five-yard touchdown run with the Vikings' first offensive touchdown of their dreadful season. But rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman's jarring hits forced two of Minnesota's seven turnovers for the most generated by the Bengals since a 1983 game.

Culpepper had the Vikes in the red zone early in the fourth quarter, but he got chased out of the pocket and before hit the sidelines he found O'Neal in front of one of his wide receivers for Cincinnati's first five-pick since a 42-3 win over the Jets Dec. 12, 1976.

Cornerback Tory James set up the last score before halftime when he picked off Vikings wide receiver Nate Burleson's tip with 1:53 left to give Palmer one more shot at the Minnesota 46.

And Palmer wanted it after overthrowing Chad Johnson twice in the end zone to thwart touchdowns, as well as an end-zone interception by cornerback Willie Offord. This time, Palmer converted a third-and-two with a screen pass to running back Chris Perry, and got a big 11-yard slant to Chad Johnson that Johnson stretched to the Vikings 8 with 22 seconds left.

As if to underscore his previous red-zone mistakes, Palmer threw one away by heaving it into the stands before hitting slanting tight end Matt Schobel for an eight-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left in the half. It capped off the second biggest day of his career, a 337-yarder on 27 of 40 passing. Chad Johnson finished with 139 yards on seven catches, and running back Rudi Johnson would end up with 80 yards on 22 carries.

It was the Bengals' biggest half-time lead since Dec. 4, 1997, when they took a 28-0 edge against Tennessee in the game Bengals running Corey Dillon broke Jim Brown's rookie rushing record.

And, it could have been more. The Bengals committed eight penalties for 50 yards in the half on the way to a team-record 17 flags. One first-half drive got blown up when tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson and right guard Eric Steinbach all committed false starts, and the offense got hung with a delay of game penalty.

Plus, another fumble recovery got negated when Bengals rookie linebacker David Pollack lined up offside, and Perry's 86-yard catch and run off a swing pass down the sideline that would have made it 21-0 after the first three series got called back with a holding call on tight end Reggie Kelly.

But nothing could slow the assault of Palmer and Chad Johnson as Palmer finished the half 20 of 27 for 266 yards, sending four of them to Chad for 109 yards.

The first one set the tone for an already giddy, ravenous crowd. It was a 70-yard in-stride strike down the middle as Johnson ran past cornerback Antoine Winfield and free safety Darren Sharper for a touchdown on the second play of the game.

Thurman then gave the ball in the arms of Vikings running back Michael Bennett a helmet shot in the hole to force a fumble recovered by strong safety Kevin Kaesviharn at the Minnesota 48.

Enter wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who came into the game with a sore shoulder and missed the first day of practice of last week. He caught three balls on the next eight plays, the last two converting third downs, and the last one coming from 12 yards out when he beat Winfield over the middle and then whirled away from him and Sharper at the goal line for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead just 7:41 into the game.

Houshmandzadeh scored the only touchdown of the second half on a 16-yard reverse which was, naturally, set up by an O'Neal interception with 2:06 left in the third quarter.

While the offense couldn't blow the Vikes right out of PBS on the next few series, the defense had the answer. There was Thurman's first forced fumble, a nice play by cornerback Deltha O'Neal defending Marcus Robinson on third down, and a third-down sack of Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper by defensive end Carl Powell.

The Vikings came out running the ball for nearly seven yards per pop, but the turnovers got in the way and Culpepper hit just six of 11 passes for 52 yards in the half.

Kicker Shayne Graham rescued the Bengals when they had some red-zone problems, hitting field goals of 40 and 29 yards that gave the Bengals a 20-0 lead with 3:19 left in the half.

The 20-0 lead came courtesy of Thurman again. If the first fumble came off of a hit, this one came off a hit and a strip of Bennett with the help of defensive tackle John Thornton as they piled on Bennett for a three-yard loss and left end Justin Smith recovered the fumble at the Vikings 15.

The Bengals, 2-0 for just the third time since 1995 and the first time in the Marvin Lewis era, symbolically displayed his team concept when the offense came out as a unit instead of individuals during pregame introductions.

One of those who came out was rookie wide receiver Chris Henry. Henry, the third-round pick from West Virginia anointed "Moss-like," by Chad Johnson, made his NFL debut against Randy Moss's old team when Lewis chose to dress Sunday and he responded with three catches for 30 yards in the first half.

Henry took last Sunday's scratch in stride, observing one day last week, "I don't think I'm doing anything wrong. I just think I'm in a group of great receivers." As late as coming off the field from Friday's practice, Lewis said, "Just be ready. Keep working hard and just be ready," as his advice to Henry.

The 6-4, 200-pound Henry is now ready after Lewis chose to sit down wide receiver Kelley Washington in a move that also could have been dictated by last Sunday's play of wide receiver Kevin Walter. Walter caught his first NFL touchdown pass against the Browns and had a career-high four catches for 47 yards.

The Bengals opted to dress just seven offensive linemen in an effort to get cornerback Greg Brooks and linebacker Hannibal Navies on special teams. Backup right tackle Stacy Andrews and rookie backup center Eric Ghiaciuc were inactive, as were cornerback Rashad Bauman, defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene and Matthias Askew, and newly-acquired fullback Nick Luchey.

Vikings middle linebacker Sam Cowart didn't answer the bell with a calf injury, giving second-year backer Rod Davis his first NFL start.

The Bengals captains for the opener were Kaesviharn, left tackle Levi Jones, linebackers Brian Simmons and Marcus Wilkins, and wide receiver Chad Johnson.

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