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Bengals stripe AFC North


Updated: 6 p.m.

It's the only way it could end, right?

With the Bengals sniffing the AFC North title in this nothing-is-easy Cardiac Cats season, quarterback Carson Palmer whistled a six-yard touchdown pass in the face of an all-out blitz to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco with 2:03 left Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium for a 17-10 lead that stood up for the victory and the Bengals' seventh division title when Bengals cornerback Leon Hall made a leaping interception in front of Chiefs wide receiver Chris Chambers with 66 seconds left at the Bengals 19.

The drive capped a 98-yard, 14-play drive that consumed 7:18 and saw running back Cedric Benson break the club record with his sixth 100-yard game of the season, ending the day with 133 yards on 29 carries.

It not only drained the clock, but also the crowd of 64,333 that had already lived through a season of six games decided in the last 22 seconds.

The winning drive got kick-started way back on the 5 when running back Brian Leonard ran a third-and-seven shovel pass for eight yards and wide receiver Andre Caldwell picked up another first on third-and-three with a nine-yard grab before The Ocho caught the winner falling on his back as leaned to catch the pass between the safety and cornerback. He then got up, flashed a one and five with his fingers in honor of Chris Henry, and touched a poster of Henry in the front row.

With the AFC North title on the line, the Bengals found themselves in a mud-wrestling match with the lowly Chiefs that was tied at 10 early in the fourth quarter.

With 14:53 left in the game and staring at a third-and-10 from the Bengals 20, Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was able to stand in the pocket and float a tying touchdown pass to running back Tim Castille running down the middle of the field away from middle linebacker Dhani Jones. Castille took a hellacious hit from safety Tom Nelson and linebacker Brandon Johnson, but still held on. And the Chiefs, next-to-last in third-down efficiency in the NFL, had a huge score on third down.

It was all set up on a deflected punt, the first block absorbed by Bengals rookie punter Kevin Huber. It came when tight end Tim O'Connell pushed up the middle and leaped over the pile to knock it down so that it only rolled out to midfield. 

The horrific Bengals offense finally stirred on the first series of the second half and took a 10-3 lead with nine minutes left in the third quarter on Palmer's 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Laveranues Coles left wide open crossing over the middle.

Held to just 53 yards in the first half, the Bengals got 77 on the first 10 plays of the second half, jump-started by Benson's 32-yard run that he started up the middle and cut back behind the left side of the offensive line. As the Bengals neared the red zone they also got a huge first-down catch from rookie wide receiver Quan Cosby on third-and-five.

The drive came out of an absolute nightmarish offensive display that locked up the first half at 3-3, an ugly effort that cost the Bengals rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga for the rest of the season with a fractured ankle.

The Bengals desperately needed a gift to score and they got it with 2:23 left in a scoreless half.

Chiefs long-snapper Thomas Gafford gunned it over the head of punter Dustin Colquitt and Colquitt was forced to kick it off the ground out of bounds at the Chiefs 7, but the Bengals still couldn't punch it in.

In fact, before the bewildered boos of the faithful they went backward. The Bengals failed to score a touchdown for the 16th time in their last 21 red-zone trips and needed Shayne Graham's 12th straight field goal from 29 yards out with 1:38 left to take a 3-0 lead against a team that had given up at least 40 points in three of its last four games.

And, the Bengals defense, brilliant for all but the final 1:38, gave up points in the final five seconds for the second straight half. Last week it was the winning field goal at the hands of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with three seconds left. This week it was Cassel leading a 13-play, 69-yard drive that took 1:33 for Ryan Succop's 30-yard field goal with five seconds left.

Cassel's big plays were back-to-back passes to running back Jamaal Charles for 24 yards (one was a 15-yarder over the middle), and a 13-yard throw to wide receiver Bobby Wade working on out route on rookie cornerback Morgan Trent.

Charles did it all for the Chiefs with 54 yards on 14 carries and three catches for 22 yards, which personally outgained the miserable Bengals total of 53 yards, 19 through the air.

It was the way the Bengals couldn't punch it through the red zone that was the most disturbing. They had Palmer's six-yard touchdown pass to Ochocinco on second down taken off the board when The Ocho stepped on the back line of the end zone for a five-yard penalty.

On the second down replay, they tried to run a screen pass but there was nothing open and Palmer had to throw it into the ground. On third down he hurried an incompletion when outside linebacker Tamba Hali backed left tackle Andrew Whitworth into Palmer.

Throwing with and into a 15-to-18 mile-per-hour wind that changed direction during the half, Palmer was just 4-of-9 for 19 yards. 

The sixth-ranked Bengals running game came out and tried to establish the run against a Chiefs team that had allowed three straight 200-yard rushing games.

But they could manage only 24 yards rushing on Benson's first seven carries in the first two series. And when the Bengals switched to former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson for the next two series, it didn't get any better. And after five series with 7:45 left in a scoreless first half, they had just 42 yards rushing and 10 yards passing against the third worst defense in the NFL.

How bad was the offense? After Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe's interception set them up with some good field position and Larry Johnson ripped off six yards, they were looking at a third-and-one from the Chiefs 37. Palmer snuck for the first down, but the bench called a timeout even though Palmer got the snap off in time. Then when the Bengals ran Benson on the replay, fullback Jeremi Johnson was called for a hold and on third-and-long, Palmer took a sack.  

The fourth series of the game was also a mess and ended in a scoreless game early in the second quarter to a wave of boos after a checkdown pass to Leonard on third down was woefully short. That came after Whitworth's false start began the drive and Johnson could get only two yards on two carries, even though the last one was behind the unbalanced line of tackles Whitworth, Andre Smith and Dennis Roland.

The Bengals blew great field position at the Kansas City 45 when they couldn't convert a third-and-nine on Palmer's throw to Ochocinco over the middle that got ripped out of his hands by cornerback Brandon Flowers.

Yet the defense stoned the Chiefs on their first three series with the help of a holding call on left tackle Branden Albert that wiped out Charles' 43-yard run on the Bengals' right perimeter. Maualuga limped off the field with a left ankle injury on the play and was done for the day. Fellow rookie Michael Johnson got a third-down sack from his right end spot to end the third drive and a scoreless third quarter.

Palmer then tried to air it out but not only did he hang it up into double coverage to wide receiver Andre Caldwell going down the middle of the field, he threw it into the teeth of the wind. The ball died and safety Jon McGraw picked it off and ran it back to midfield.

Again the defense responded with a three-and-out, this one finished off by middle linebacker Dhani Jones knocking away a pass for tight end Jack O'Connell.

PREGAME NOTES: With four running backs active for the first time since the Larry Johnson signing Nov. 16, wide receiver Jerome Simpson went back to the inactive list for Sunday's game against the Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium. As expected, defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) and safety Chris Crocker (ankle) were also out after not practicing all week.

Right tackle Anthony Collins was inactive for the second straight game, again indicating the Bengals are pleased with the progress of rookie Andre Smith after he played the most snaps of his career last week in the rotation with Dennis Roland. Also down were defensive tackle Orien Harris, fullback Fui Vakapuna, and center Jonathan Luigs.

The move with Simpson, active for the first and only time this season last week in San Diego, would seem to foreshadow a day of running the ball and focusing on field position with four receivers and four backs active. Plus, Simpson isn't a core special teams player like linebacker Dan Skuta, active instead of Harris even though the Bengals are short on the defensive line with Peko's injury.

While a smattering of Bengals worked out on the field at 11:15, the piercing sound of car horns could be heard. The fans' tribute to late Bengals receiver Chris Henry came about 90 minutes before the team's video tribute just before the national anthem with the team on the sidelines. Lasting about a minute, a montage of clips of Henry plays were backed by the song "Living in a Dream" by Foreigner.

The Bengals starting defense was introduced individually in their back jerseys and white pants with Pat Sims playing for Peko and Tom Nelson for Crocker. The Chiefs won the toss and received.

Also honored on the field were the high school state championship football teams from Cincinnati's Winton Woods and Highlands of Fort Thomas, Ky.

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