Posted: 3:50 a.m.
SAN DIEGO - Even the ridiculously focused and unflappable Carson Palmer found himself thinking about Chris Henry now and again during Sunday's titanic game with the Chargers in the Qualcomm quagmire of sound in which he very nearly engineered his fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the year for the kid from the land of the Fourth Quarter and the Bengals' second AFC North title in five seasons.
Palmer even tossed the ball in the air with Henry's signature underhand flip after scoring the first two-point conversion of his career on a quarterback draw that drew the Bengals within 24-21.
But if it's one thing the Bengals have learned in this extraordinary season of heroics and heartbreak, it is how quickly life and football can change in the blink of a computer click. On Sunday it was Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers using the last 57 seconds to manufacture Nate Kaeding's 52-yard field goal with three seconds left that eliminated overtime and the Bengals' bid for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
It was riveting stuff.
Two postseason teams battling for a bye with two Pro Bowl quarterbacks playing like it.
The Bengals' Shayne Graham, the fourth-most accurate kicker of all time, tying the game with an ice-cold clutch 34-yarder with 57 seconds left, only to see Kaeding, the NFL's most accurate kicker ever, drill a 52-yarder to win it with three seconds left.
One of Henry's mentors, Chad Ochocinco, played with his heart on his sleeve before leaving it on the field after scored the first Bengals touchdown with his longest touchdown catch in two years (49 yards) and he set up the other touchdown with the longest run of his career (26).
But it wasn't enough. To a man, the players thought they were going to overtime for Henry.
"It sucks. It sucks to lose. It sucks to lose a teammate," said Palmer, sapped after his best passing day in two years brought his team to the brink under the most difficult of circumstances. "There's not a right way or wrong way to put it. We've got a job to do. We've got to move on."
Now the clock is ticking louder and louder for the 9-5 Bengals, who have been a win away from the playoffs for two weeks. They get their third shot for the 10th win that secures the division next week at Paul Brown Stadium against the 3-11 Chiefs.
"We wanted to get it done today. Now we've got Kansas City coming in and I saw the score of their game," said Palmer of the shootout the Browns beat the Chiefs. "They're going to come in hungry trying to knock us off. We want to win the division in front of our fans, celebrate at home, and get ready for the Jets."
First the team must attend Henry's funeral in New Orleans on Tuesday, but The Ocho already honored him after scoring the touchdown when he dropped to his knees into the end zone and said what they always said to each other.
"I was just saying what we would always say before practice or a game," The Ocho said. "Eighty-five plus 15 equals 100 ways to be great."
The only thing standing between the Bengals and greatness Sunday was themselves. A horrific third quarter in which the offense committed its obligatory five penalties (three straight before one snap), wide receiver Andre Caldwell's costly fumble when the Bengals were driving for what could have been a go-ahead touchdown, and cornerback Leon Hall's lapse at the hands of one of the NFL's most lethal quarterbacks aided the Chargers' ninth straight victory.
"That quarter we had all the penalties really hurt us," Palmer said. "It was a big game for us, a big game for them. But we've been pretty good eliminating distractions, blocking out distractions. I thought we were very focused all day. We had one big series where we lost focus ... that definitely hurt us. But we dealt with the situation and we were able to focus on our jobs."
The emotions were varied but they were electric in the postgame locker room as this team continues to weave a season worthy of the Great American Novel.
Ochocinco was crestfallen.
"We played pretty good, but we still have to play near perfect to win in big games like this," The Ocho said after not getting a catch in the second half.
After keeping Shawne Merriman away from Palmer long enough to help him post his second highest passer rating of the season (97.3), left tackle Andrew Whitworth was amazed at how his team keeps responding. There have been the sudden deaths of Henry and the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, as well as the miscarriage suffered by Whitworth's wife. And yet the Bengals seemingly grind and pound and never go away just when it seems like fate, not to mention the schedule maker, have it in for them.
"I feel a little sad, but I feel real good about this football team and the adversity we've been through this year," Whitworth said. "We've really grown not only on the field but off it. I think we feel good. We needed to play a good game today and we did on the road against a great team like San Diego, just like we're going to have to do in the playoffs. Now we've got to move on and win the division.
"The main thing we want people to realize is that Chris turned his life around and this team did the same thing. He signifies what we are. He turned his life around when nobody thought he could. And nobody felt this football team could go from (4-11-1) to where we are now."
After outpitching the NFL's hottest quarterback (Philip Rivers' 308 yards and 92.9 were only close), Palmer kept adding up the mistakes.
"We didn't make enough plays to win the game and we should have," he said. "I'm not satisfied. Not at all."
Hall, the San Diego product, also had a bucketful of emotions after his first NFL game in his hometown. He's having a Pro Bowl-type season, but he had his worst game of the year in giving up two touchdown passes even before the snap before the winning field goal. That's when he let Chargers receiver Malcom Floyd do exactly what he wasn't supposed to let him do: Get 15 yards on the sidelines to stop the clock with eight seconds left. Never mind that safety Chinedum Ndukwe's blitz was only about a whisker late.
Hall said he was playing inside when Floyd made his break to the outside.
"I was playing the inside. I know when I look back on the film I should have had a better break and I've got to contest the ball," he said. "What was it? At the 35, 40? We didn't want to give him that because we know they've got a good kicker."
After Palmer threw a pick when he led The Ocho too far across the middle at the Bengals 40 in the ugly third quarter, Rivers went after Hall on the second snap after the turnover with wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Hall reacted as if he was going to have some safety help behind him as let Jackson off the line, but Ndukwe was blitzing and Tom Nelson was on the other side of the field.
"I just have to keep sinking on that. I kind of hurt myself early on," Hall said. "But I was still in position that I kind of had a play on the ball and it's cut and dried, I have to make the play."
Hall called it "bittersweet."
"I was able to see my family yesterday and I'm going to see them now and that's nice, but the scoreboard said we lost," Hall said. "It's tough. We wanted to win the game for the team and for Chris, too, but unfortunately we didn't."
The most demanding part of the week may still be on the way. Palmer called the last four days "eerie," and there is still the Bengals charter flight to Henry's funeral Tuesday.
"It's almost surreal. I almost don't believe it until I see him Tuesday," Palmer said. "I think it will really hit home for myself and a number of other guys because you're so far away from it. Your mind really doesn't grasp the situation until Tuesday when we're in New Orleans and we pay respect to his family and Chris and the life he lived. It will hit home. At least for me."