Updated: 7:15 p.m.
SAN DIEGO - The Bengals left Philip Rivers too much time.
After Shayne Graham nailed a game-tying field goal with 54 seconds left, the Chargers took over at their 20-yard line. An 11-yard pass from Rivers to running back Darren Sproles and a 20-yard completion to wide receiver Vincent Jackson put San Diego at the Bengals 49 with 26 seconds left. An injury to Chargers center Scott Mruczkowski on the play meant an automatic 10-second runoff of the clock to 16 seconds.
Following an incompletion Rivers then connected with wide reciver Malcolm Floyd on a 15-yard pass, and with San Diego out of timeouts, Floyd was able to get out of bounds to stop the clock with eight seconds remaining. That brought on kicker Nate Kaeding, who nailed a 52-yard field goal with plenty to spare with three seconds left to give the Chargers a 27-24 victory.
On the drive that tied the game the Bengals were standing in the playoff din of Qualcomm Stadium, and starting with a 21-yard pass to tight end J.P. Foschi out of his own end zone, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer tried to drive his team to the AFC North title with his team trailing San Diego, 24-21, and got a 34-yard field goal from Graham that tied Sunday's game at 24 with 54 seconds left.
Palmer, enjoying his first 300-yard passing game since the 2007 finale, got his team to the Chargers 19, but a penalty pushed the ball back to the 24 and on the last play before the two-minute warning wide receiver Andre Caldwell got drilled by linebacker Thomas Dobbins for a fumble that bounced backward more than 20 yards and Palmer had to chase it down at the San Diego 45.
Palmer got 22 yards back on a throw over the middle to wide receiver Quan Cosby on 3rd-and-30 to set up Graham's field goal.
The Bengals scored their first second half touchdown since Oct. 25 when Palmer hit wide receiver Laveranues Coles with a two-yard pass on the right sideline that cut the Chargers lead to 24-19 with 12:37 left. The Bengals then opted to go for the two-point conversion and Palmer made it in easily on a quarterback draw straight up the middle to slice the deficit to 24-21.
It had been set up by wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's amazing 26-yard zig-zag run off a lateral behind the line of scrimmage.
SAM linebacker Keith Rivers' interception off a tipped pass to Chargers tight end Antonio Gates at the San Diego 33 with the Bengals trailing 24-13 gave the Bengals the chance.
The Bengals offense that had staged a revival in the first half, complete with a long-ball touchdown to Ochocinco in honor of Chris Henry, melted down during the third quarter in the Qualcomm quagmire and fell behind, 24-13, heading into the fourth quarter.
After the Chargers took advantage of a Palmer interception with Rivers' 34-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Vincent Jackson streaking past cornerback Leon Hall with 6:28 left in the third quarter, the Bengals suffered on the next three snaps a false start, an illegal substitution, and a delay of game before the series mercifully ended when a handoff appeared to get fouled up and Palmer had to run for short yardage.
In the previous three games in which they had suffered 30 penalties, the trend had been for the Bengals to commit them early in the game. But after cutting San Diego's lead to 14-13 at halftime, the mistakes started. Palmer had hooked up with Ochocinco three times for 79 yards in the first half but he couldn't find him in the third quarter.
The interception came when Palmer tried to hit Ochocinco over the middle, but it was thrown too far in front of him and was picked off by cornerback Quentin Jammer at the Bengals 40 and Rivers took just two plays to find Jackson for his second touchdown of the game and the second time he victimized Hall. Although it did look like Hall thought he was going to have safety help and there was none.
The offense went back to looking like it needs more than help. The Bengals offensive line was supposed to push around San Diego's 21st-ranked run defense, but the Bengals had just 76 yards on their first 19 carries. And on third-and-six on the first snap of the fourth quarter, Palmer threw a checkdown pass to running back Brian Leonard that was incomplete.
The offense failed to take advantage of the defense's back-to-back three-and-outs that opened the second half, the last one coming when Rivers was stuffed on a sneak on third-and-one.
In honor of his fallen partner in the long ball, Ochocinco caught his longest touchdown pass in two seasons when Palmer hit him with a 49-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter, but the Bengals offense again stalled in the red zone as the Chargers took a 14-13 halftime lead.
Yet the revived Bengals passing game got them into a first-half standoff. The Bengals could have taken the lead in the last minute of the first half, but had to settle for Graham's 25-yard field goal when Palmer couldn't find anybody open in back-to-back throws from the San Diego 7. It was the second time the Bengals came out of the red zone Sunday with only a field goal on a curious series in which they still had a timeout left and Palmer spiked it on first down with 22 seconds left.
Still, it was the best the Bengals pass offense had looked in weeks. After the Chargers took a 14-10 lead, the Bengals got the ball back with 3:12 left in the half and got a 27-yard run by running back Larry Johnson cutting against the grain. Then Palmer sent a message to anyone who thinks his arm is hurt when he made a great adjustment and bullet throw in the face of a blitz to wide receiver Laveranues Coles for 20 yards.
After failing to throw for 259 yards in any of the last five games, Palmer finished with 314 yards on 27-of-40 passing.
Ochocinco raced passed Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie, one of his winter workout partners, to give the Bengals a 10-7 lead two minutes into the second quarter.
Ochocinco then dropped the ball to the side and dropped to both knees to honor Henry. Ochocinco's teammates gave him space as he walked off the field tapping his heart. He then sat on the bench with his head under a towel and wept.
The Chargers answered with a long ball of their own when the Bengals defense gave up some uncharacteristic plays. The NFL's third-best run defense gave up a 13-yard run to the struggling LaDainian Tomlinson (59 yards on 16 carries) and Rivers went against Hall one-on-one and got a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jackson.
Jackson beat Hall with a shake to the inside and a break to the outside, but he still had to make a great diving catch as rolled over the sideline with 3:12 left in the half.
The Bengals downfield passing game had already stirred on its first series with Palmer hitting Ochocinco twice for 30 yards before getting a 26-yard field goal from Graham that cut the Chargers lead to 7-3 with 4:11 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals survived a 15-yard personal foul call on running back Cedric Benson when Palmer hit Caldwell for a 16-yard gain and then on the next snap converted a third-and-eight on a sideline rout to The Ocho.
But on first down from the San Diego 11, Caldwell dropped a pass over the middle and on third down he was well covered in the back of the end zone and Palmer had to throw it high. He was 4-for-7 on the series for 58 yards. The touchdown catch gave The Ocho over 1,000 yards for the seventh time in his nine seasons.
The Bengals gave up a touchdown on their first defensive series of the game for the first time since Oct. 19 last season when Rivers threw a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates on third down to give San Diego a 7-0 lead with 10:06 left in the first quarter.
It was the only catch by the leading trio of Chargers receivers in the 11-play drive as Rivers did his passing underneath to Tomlinson and Sproles.
It was Sproles' kick return to his own 45 that ignited the Chargers on the opening kickoff.
But the Bengals defense bounced back on the next series to force a punt after middle linebacker Dhani Jones used good coverage to sack Rivers. And on the series after that, Rivers launched a deep throw where cornerback Johnathan Joseph was the closest player and he grabbed it at his 37 for his career-high sixth interception.
With Larry Johnson getting 35 yards on four carries and Benson adding 23 on seven, the Bengals outgained the high-octane San Diego offense, 226-172 in the half. Rivers was 13-of-20 for 130 yards.
PREGAME NOTES: Wide receiver Jerome Simpson was active for the Bengals on Sunday for the first time this season, but right tackle Anthony Collins was not active for the first time this season. Also, running back Bernard Scott (toe) thought he would be ready, but he was inactive for the third straight game.
As expected, defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) and safety Chris Crocker (ankle) were also out with injury. Also down were center Jonathan Luigs and fullback Fui Vakapuna.
Collins was the surprise of the day after being part of the Bengals "three-headed monster" at right tackle the past few games. Although Dennis Roland is listed as the starter, the move could indicate the Bengals are now more comfortable with rookie Andre Smith, particularly, in passing situations. Smith, in his third NFL game, started last week but Roland was also in the lineup as a tight end. Roland figures to get the majority of snaps again, but with Collins down Smith is no doubt going to get his most work ever.
As per the routine the past couple of weeks, Nate Livings got the start at left guard but was going to have a quarterly rotation with Evan Mathis.
After a moment of silence for Chris Henry as the Bengals wore the all white jerseys, the Chargers won the toss and chose to receive.
Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocino may not have been wearing Henry's No. 15 at Qualcomm Stadium, but he was keeping it close.
Word is Henry's jersey was hanging next to The Ocho's locker as the Bengals prepared for the Chargers and there was some speculation that it could make its way onto the sidelines.
As of Sunday afternoon the Bengals still didn't know if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was going to Henry's funeral Tuesday in New Orleans. The Bengals said that the visitation has been moved up an hour to 10 a.m-noon, CST, with the funeral following at noon.