Maybe this wasn't the end of an era at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday night, but the start of another.
With quarterback Carson Palmer throwing four third-down touchdown passes to rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley and two to third-year wider receiver Jerome Simpson, the Bengals handed Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers his first December road loss in a 34-20 victory that knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs before a crowd of 54,194.
Palmer hit his first 10 passes and 16-of-21 overall for 269 yards for a career-best 157.2 passer rating. His last toss, a 59-yard touchdown bomb, came on third-and-seven with a 15-to-20 mile-per-hour wind to Simpson running past cornerback Antoine Cason with 6:25 left in the game that made it 27-13. It was Simpson's second touchdown of the game and the second of his career in just the second start of a career that only two weeks ago was mired on the inactive list.
The defense, as it did all day against Rivers' high-octane offense that is second in the NFL, responded with a four-and-out in which rookie tackle Geno Atkins knocked down Rivers' fourth-down pass to give the Bengals the ball at the Chargers 26. Second-year running back Bernard Scott walked in from 10 yards out with 3:54 left in the game for his first touchdown of his career that made it 34-13.
Early in the fourth quarter, Palmer threw a three-yard bullet to Shipley just over the goal line that gave the Bengals a 20-10 lead with 13 minutes left.
The score came courtesy of second-year linebacker Rey Maualuga's second interception of the season in coverage of tight end Randy McMichael on the last play of the third quarter and his ensuing 47-yard zig-zag run that put the ball at the San Diego 21.
The Chargers closed it to 13-10 with 5:45 left when safety Roy Williams missed running back Ryan Matthews, who took off on the longest run of his career for a 23-yard touchdown.
With wide receiver Chad Ochocinco inactive with an ankle problem in what many believe is his last PBS game, Palmer romped with the new generation of receivers as the Bengals upped their record to 23-7 in their last 30 home finales. Simpson had six catches for 124 yards for his first 100-yard game and Gresham had four catches for 56 yards while Simpson's 2008 draftmate, wide receiver Andre Caldwell, added 87 more yards for four catches a week after he had a career-high 89 yards.
The Bengals defense carried Cincinnati's 13-3 run in the first half, topped off by their goal-line stand at the two-minute warning at the Bengals 1 on a series set up by cornerback Johnathan Joseph's pass interference call working against wide receiver Vincent Jackson in the end zone.
With rookie linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy helping out linebackers Keith Rivers and Dhani Jones on first and second down, respectively, second-year right end Michael Johnson made the third-down stop when he fought off a block and dragged down Matthews for a one-yard loss to force Nate Kaeding's 20-yard field goal with 1:15 left in the half and that's how the NFL's third-leading offense came up with just a field goal in the first half.
But the lead should have been so much more as the kids romped in the first half. Leading 13-0, Palmer had the Bengals in the red zone when he hit Simpson over the middle in a soft zone for 21 yards and then fired a 44-yard bomb into the teeth of the wind as Caldwell raced past cornerback Quentin Jammer to put the ball on the Chargers 20 as the Bengals had the NFL's No. 1 defense reeling.
But running back Cedric Benson, who had to fend for his life in his own backfield all day, got smoked on first down as outside linebacker Antwan Applewhite poked it out of his hands for Benson's fifth fumble of the season at the Chargers 25 to set up San Diego's only points of the half.
Palmer, in the throes of hitting all eight of his passes in a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the first half, flipped a 22-yard screen to Gresham on the first play of the second quarter that was all yards after catch when Gresham screwed defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo into the ground with a move at the line of scrimmage.
In a half Palmer threw his 150th career touchdown pass, he then found Simpson for his first career touchdown catch on third-and-10 from the 10 when Simpson beat free safety Paul Oliver on a corner route in the end zone as Simpson went in the air to wrench the ball from Oliver in time to get both feet down. After waiting three years to get his first score, Simpson had to wait a few more minutes for the play to survive Chargers head coach Norv Turner's challenge and the Bengals to take a 13-0 lead just 2:06 into the second quarter.
Clint Stitser then missed his second extra point in his brief career when he badly yanked a line drive left.
The weather clearly had an impact on the Chargers from the jump. They had minus yardage on the first six snaps and on the seventh fumbled the ball away.
Vincent Jackson fumbled a reverse pitch all the way back to the one-yard line for a 19-yard loss on the game's first play, and punter Mike Scifres shanked a 24-yarder to put the Bengals in great shape at the San Diego 32.
From there it was Gresham's show. He caught a 23-yarder down the middle off bouncing off safety Eric Weddle with the help of Benson picking up the blitz and on third-and-two from the three he caught Palmer's 150th career touchdown pass even though Oliver was called for pass interference. In the middle of the back of the end zone, Gresham simply stretched over Oliver and pulled it down for his third touchdown catch of the season for a 7-0 lead with less than five minutes gone in the game.
The Chargers had to punt right away again when Rivers couldn't get anything on a bad second-down pass and on third down Roy Williams and WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson combined to stop a checkdown pass to McMichael short of the first down.
The Bengals came in with the definite mindset of trying to recreate last week's success of running the ball. On their next two series, they didn't throw a pass. After wide receiver Quan Cosby was called for a hold, they they tried to get it all back on runs and ended up three yards shy and had to punt. After Roy Williams recovered Chargers running back Mike Tolbert's fumble forced by safety Reggie Nelson at the San Diego 33, the Bengals couldn't get a yard on third-and-one and fourth-and-one. Palmer got pushed back on a sneak on third down and Benson got enveloped in the backfield before getting stopped on fourth down.
Tolbert left the field strapped to a stretcher when he appeared to injure his head on the hit that led to the fumble. He was later diagnosed with a sprained neck.
The Bengals defense was superb. The Chargers came into the game with the fourth-most first downs in the NFL, but they didn't get their first one until early in the second quarter when Rivers drilled a 17-yarder over the middle to Jackson in front of Joseph. But WILL linebacker Keith Rivers chased down Sproles in pass coverage for a half-yard gain, and on third down Philip Rivers took a shot deep down the left sideline to Jackson but he was well covered by cornerback Leon Hall.
PREGAME NOTES:As sporadic snow flurries flew, Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco didn't surface for early pregame warmups with the quarterbacks and receivers, which confirmed his tweet he's not playing Sunday against the Chargers.
The inactive list later confirmed that The Ocho (ankle) was inactive for just the fourth time in the last nine seasons and eighth time in his career and that Jerome Simpson got the second start of his career. With Dennis Roland (knee) limited during the week, Anthony Collins got his second start of the season at right tackle and veteran tackle Kirk Chambers was active for the first time since he signed Nov. 16.
Also inactive were cornerback Jonathan Wade (knee) and running back Brian Leonard (ankle) with injuries while tight ends Chase Coffman and Garrett Mills, center Reggie Stephens, and defensive end Victor Adeyanju were left out of the mix.
Two of the Chargers' big offensive weapons were out with injuries, tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Malcom Floyd.
The flurries stopped, but the weather was still a frigid 29 degrees with a cutting 15 to 20 mile-per-hour wind that made it feel like 17 degrees. Yet, it was a sight better than what was happening in Philadelphia, where NBC took its cameras for the Sunday night game after flexing out Bengals-Chargers. A snow emergency has moved the Eagles-Vikings back to Tuesday night.
The Bengals appeared in their orange jerseys and white pants, in which they have a 7-3 record. Combine that with a 3-0 record in orange jerseys and black pants and they're 10-3 in orange. In what could be his last game as head coach, Marvin Lewis chose to announce the offense in front of a half-filled stadium shivering with the third straight game in 32-degree or colder weather.
San Diego won the toss and received.