Chris Perry looks for first-half running room. (Bengals photo)
They came to see two of the NFL's best quarterbacks and two of the NFL's best teams and they didn't disappoint as the Bengals and Colts slugged at each other in one of the wildest games in Bengals history that saw Cincinnati's run at the undefeated Colts end in a dizzying 45-37 loss.
And there were some Bengals who thought there could be a replay in the playoffs on a day they remained even with the Steelers at 7-3 on top of the AFC North after Pittsburgh's loss in Baltimore.
"As long as we do what we expect to do the rest of the year," said Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer after his first shootout on top of the NFL passer rating board with the Colts' Peyton Manning.
"We are going to see them again, believe me," said Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson after his career-high 189 yards.
"It's good to see one of the best and get it into your system," said Bengals defensive end Justin Smith, who had a rare sack of Manning, "because I think we will see them again."
Before a raucous and drained sell-out crowd of 65,995 at Paul Brown Stadium (the second biggest Bengals crowd ever), Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning went yard for yard in one of the most memorable passing festivals ever on the riverfront.
Palmer, getting immaculate protection all day from tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson against the NFL's sack leaders, rung up 335 yards, completing 25 of 38 passes and sending those career-high 189 yards to Johnson on eight throws. Manning countered with 365 yards on 24-of-40 pitching and found a pair of 100-yard receivers in tight end Dallas Clark (125) and wide receiver Reggie Wayne (117).
Manning showed why he's the two-time reigning MVP, converting five third downs of at least third-and-11. The Bengals showed why they are a few plays away from winning a game like this, failing in the second half on a fourth-and-one on a run to running back Chris Perry, and on a fourth-and-four pass over the middle to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
"You have to be perfect. I said it before; he's unbelievable, and they're unbelievable as an offense," Palmer said. "Edgerrin (James) ... his vision is fun to watch. But when you're playing against them, it's not fun to see them move up and down the field. But it's unbelievable what they do offensively."
But the Bengals are still looking for that second win over a winning team this season and the first over an AFC heavyweight.
"That's the bad taste in the mouth," Anderson said. "At some point we have to win one of these games."
There seemed to be a sense of encouragement in Lewis.
"They are a good offensive football team, as we all know," he said. "They had a lot of guys making plays. We made a lot of plays ourselves, but not enough. We're getting closer. One day we're going to have that breakthrough. We'll keep working at it, and keep climbing up that ladder. We'll keep coming at it."
But there was also a sense that an opportunity had been lost Sunday with the Steelers going down.
"Yeah, there is some of that," said defensive tackle Bryan Robinson. "It would have been nice, bit it also means we're certainly still in it."
Never say die
The Bengals were in the red zone in the final two minutes, but they allowed their only sack of the game when NFL sack leader Robert Mathis dumped Palmer to force Shayne Graham's 44-yard field goal with 1:23 left that made it 45-37.
It was Graham's third field goal in a game he made all three from 43, 41, and 44 in becoming the club's all-time accuracy leader.
And then Graham's first on-side kick nearly caught the Colts napping, but Clark's dive beat Tab Perry to the ball on a pooch kick. The Bengals got another chance when the Colts held on the play, but they recovered Graham's straight-on on-side kick at the Bengals 44 with 1:21 left.
Palmer couldn't say enough about his line. Anderson said he hurt his kneecap on the first play of the game, but hung in there all the way despite taking a painkiller at halftime, and faces an MRI Monday. Jones, playing on a tender knee himself, shut out the NFL's most prolific passer over the last two years, Dwight Freeney. Right guard Bobbie Williams left for a series with a rib injury and is also set to undergo an MRI.
"The thing I am most excited about and the thing that is unbelievable, really, is the way our offensive line played," Palmer said. "I didn't even see Freeney on the field, and he's always around the quarterback. I didn't see Mathis. I didn't see Corey Simon. Seldom do I get surprised by the things our offensive line does, but I was shocked. We shut them out. We shut them out with Willie banged up, Richie (Braham) banged up, and Bobbie getting taped up in the locker room. It was unbelievable the way those guys played. They played their hearts out, and I feel I didn't make enough plays for us to win. I left those guys hanging because they played unbelievable."
The electricity at PBS sizzled long before Sunday's kickoff as Bengals fans huddled around TV sets at concession stands and club lounges to see if the Ravens could finish off a victory over the Steelers in a game that was tied at 13 with 5:15 left before the Bengals started their game.
In a game of 492 yards produced by the losers and 451 by the winners, doesn't it always come down to a yard? With the Colts clinging to a 42-34 lead in the last 1:30 of the third quarter, the Bengals opted to go for it on fourth and a long one from the Colts 27. They had hurt the Colts inside with running back Rudi Johnson, but the Bengals opted to send speed back Chris Perry wide to the left and his former Michigan teammate, linebacker Cato June, along with linebacker Gary Brackett chased him out of bounds before he could get to the stick.
But the Bengals responded by stopping Manning for just the second time all day with 14:53 left in the game, forcing a holding call on left tackle Tarik Glenn that forced the Colts' first punt of the game.
But Palmer made his only mistake of the night when he overthrew rookie wide receiver Chris Henry in a crowd around midfield for an interception by rookie cornerback Marlin Jackson. Then Manning, as he did all night, torched the Bengals on third down, converting a third-and-15 on a crossing route to wide receiver Brandon Stokley for 24 yards to keep the drive going. Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal knocked the ball out of wide receiver Marvin Harrison's hands in the end zone, but Mike Vanderjagt's 19-yard field goal with 6:16 left made it a two-touchdown game at 45-34.
Bengals come out firing
After participating in the biggest scoring first half in club history, the Bengals barged out of the locker room with Tab Perry's 39-yard kickoff return, a diving 20-yard catch by Chad Johnson and a 15-yard catch by Henry over the middle for a touchdown that suddenly cut the Colts lead to 35-34 just two minutes into the third quarter.
Then the Colts turned to their running game to jack it to 42-34 on a killing 15-play, 77-yard drive with 4:29 left in the third quarter. James, held in check much of the night except for this stretch, carried 10 times for 46 yards, taking it the last two for the touchdown that finished a drive gobbling a precious 8:23. James finished with 89 yards on 24 carries, snapping his streak of five consecutive 100-yard games.
Manning said that drive was a product of the Bengals changing their defense. In the first half, he said they dared him to beat him by playing a single safety and focusing their energies on stopping James on the ground. Manning took them up on it, sifting the Bengals for 272 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-23 passing in the first half alone while James had just 29 yards on nine carries.
Then, Manning said, the Bengals backed off James, turned to playing the pass with a nickel package, and he put the ball in James's stomach.
"We heard coming in that they were going to try to take Edgerrin James away and force us to throw. That is what they did in the first half," said Colts head coach Tony Dungy. " There was a lot of blitzing and a lot of seven- and eight-man fronts. Peyton Manning was red hot. In the second half, they played more nickel coverage and we had to run the ball. We adjusted well."
Dungy displayed his team's intoxicating balance in the form of his tight end, Clark.
"We came out with the idea of playing two tight ends and keeping them in a base defense," Dungy said. "We know that we will get Dallas matched up with either a linebacker or a safety if they bring guys into the box to stop the run. That's what they did in the first half. He made some plays. In the second half they played nickel and put (cornerback) Keiwan Ratliff on him, and that's when we ran the ball. We thought our tight ends could make some things happen if they played base defense."
The only time the Bengals stopped Manning in the first half came in the last minute when they pushed the pocket, forced Manning to get his feet tangled with center Jeff Saturday, and when he was unable to get his feet under him on the pass, Ratliff picked off the wobbler and returned it 35 yards to the Colts 14 with 1:01 left.
Then running back Rudi Johnson got his 59th and final yard of the half on his 12th carry with 12 seconds left when he somehow bounced off tackle Montae Reagor, spun over the backs of uniforms, and scored to cap the highest scoring first half in Cincinnati history and the second highest of any half next to the 66 in last year's second half of the 58-48 win over Cleveland.
Fireworks start early
The Bengals tied a 26-year-old team record by allowing 35 first-half points as well as putting up 27 against a defense that hadn't allowed more than 27 all year except for a 45-28 win over the Rams.
Palmer and Manning traded touchdown bombs in the first quarter and both had perfect passer ratings as late as seven minutes left in the first half as the clubs scored on the game's first seven possessions.
Manning and the Colts devastated a Bengals defense that came into the game without allowing three touchdowns in a game and not giving up a pass longer than 28 yards since the second quarter of the opener. Using a plethora of Bengals mistakes, it took Manning just the first 26:30 of the game to rack up five touchdowns, 35 points, and a 35-17 lead as he hit on 16 of his first 20 passes for 272 yards and three with 3:41 left in the half.
Palmer, fueled by a 68-yard pitch-and-catch-touchdown to Chad Johnson, hit seven of his first eight passes for 141 yards, and Rudi Johnson chewed up 58 yards on his first 11 carries.
But on the game's eighth series, Palmer couldn't convert on a third-and-four as rookie cornerback Marlin Jackson made a nice play batting the ball away from wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and then the Bengals showed why they couldn't stop the Colts as they continued to give Manning plenty of ammunition in the form of gaffes.
This time it was a shanked punt by the Bengals' Kyle Larson compounded by a 15-yard facemask penalty on safety Ifeanyi Ohalete that gave Manning the ball at the Bengals 40. At that point, the Colts had just one penalty, the Bengals six. Cincinnati finished with nine for 85 for the game, its most since a dozen in the Oct. 9 loss in Jacksonville.
Then Manning converted back-to-back long third downs in a half he converted five out of six third-down tries. The first one was third-and-11 and wide receiver Reggie Wayne picked up 23 in front of cornerback Tory James. Then on third-and-13, Clark finished off his first-half annihilation with a 21-yard touchdown catch working against cornerback Keiwan Ratliff with 3:41 left in the game for a 35-17 lead.
Clark, who came into the game with 205 yards on the season, had 105 before halftime on five catches. He burned the Bengals on a 56-yarder over the middle when Ohalete tried to the strip the ball, didn't get it, and Clark was able to get about 25 more after the catch.
The Colts, leading the league converting 53 percent of their third downs, did it again Sunday. They clicked on 8 of 14 for 57 percent, with Manning completing four passes of at least third-and-11 for first downs, as well as getting a pass interference penalty on third-and-18.
Manning began the fireworks when he double pumped on Tory James and Wayne got behind him for a 66-yard touchdown catch. Just 67 seconds later, Palmer hit Chad Johnson streaking past cornerback Jason David and safety Bob Sanders down the left sideline to make it 14-10 with 3:23 left in the first quarter.
Johnson then approached a Ben-Gal cheerleader on the Bengals sideline, went to one knee, proposed, kissed her, and then went to the sideline to honor suspended Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. "T.O. I got you baby,," he scrawled on a grease board and showed it to the TV cameras.
Johnson said he empathizes with Owens's plight. "He is not able to play right now," Johnson said. "I just wanted to make sure I got that message out to him; I'm going to pick up his slack."
Then, on the first play after a 22-yard pass interference call on Tory James working on Wayne on third-and-18, Manning double-pumped against a double safety blitz and found a wide open tight end Bryan Fletcher for a nine-yard touchdown pass that gave the Colts a 21-10 lead just 48 seconds into the second quarter. The Bengals hadn't give up three touchdowns in a game all season, and it took the Colts just 15:48 to do it.
Manning wasted no time making the Bengals pay for mistakes. It looked like the Bengals defense began the game with a three-and-out, but on the third-and-10 play Ohalete was called for being offsides as he inched toward a blitz. Now staring at third-and-5, Manning hit Stokley running a 16-yard crossing pattern and he was off. Manning didn't have to face a third down on the remaining eight snaps out of the no huddle in getting running back Dominic Rhodes a four-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0 6:04 into the game.
The Bengals had their share of bad luck even before the game started. They lost reserve cornerback Rashad Bauman, a key special teams player, for Sunday's game after he injured his knee in Saturday's walk through. Lewis decided to put him on the inactive list, and activated linebacker Caleb Miller for his first game this season.
And, Houshmandzadeh was shaken up in pregame warmups when another player ran into him. He walked off the field, returned a few minutes later, and responded with a 21-yard catch on the Bengals' first series and finished with five catches for 47 yards.
Although rookie linebacker David Pollack returned from a sprained knee that forced him out of the last two games, Lewis opted to start Landon Johnson at strong side linebacker, but Johnson had to leave during the first series after a blow to the head and he didn't return until the second half.
The Bengals fingered stopping Edgerrin James as their top defensive priority, but they know it is also important to put pressure on Manning. They decided to deactivate run-stopping tackle Shaun Smith and go with Carl Powell, a tackle and end they use at either spot on all three downs.
It is a pick-a-poison game for the Bengals defense against the 10-0 Colts. Manning came in second to Palmer in touchdown passes in engineering the league's eighth-ranked pass offense. James already had 1,000 yards for a running game that ranks sixth.
Losing Bauman, the fourth corner, hurt against a multi-receiver team like the Colts. A sure tackler, he played well two weeks ago when he made two big third-down stops during the win in Baltimore.
The Bengals had one stat advantage going for them against the NFL's most complete team. The Colts have played only one running game ranked higher than the Bengals at No. 15. That was the No. 11 Jaguars, a team that came within 10-3 of beating them in the second game of the season. Indy has been stingy with a defense ranked ninth against the run while leading the NFL in sacks, but the Bengals rolled up a 164 yards rushing on 26 carries, the most allowed by the Colts this season and the second most for the Bengals. Rudi Johnson had 76 on 16 carries and Chris Perry had a career-high 82 yards on eight carries.
The battles lines were drawn early. The Bengals starting offense came out announced as a unit. The Colts defensive starters were announced individually.
Plus, the Bengals sent out for captains Anderson, running back Rudi Johnson, linebacker Brian Simmons and defensive end Justin Smith.
Also inactive for the Bengals were wide receiver Kelley Washington, fullback Nick Luchey, linebacker Larry Stevens, and defensive linemen Matthias Askew and Jonathan Fanene.
The 16th straight sellout viewed the debut of Cincinnati funk legend Bootsy Collins's "Fear Da Tiger" video featuring some of the Bengals who helped write the song, such as defensive end Duane Clemons, and offensive linemen Stacy Andrews and Ben Wilkerson.
The Bengals beefed up their on-field security in their first home game since a fan ran on the field and swiped the ball from Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
PBS deployed a security guard sitting in each aisle facing the crowd and added five more uniformed police officers on the field for a total of eight, and added 20 more security guards on the feld for a total of 36.