BENGALS GAMEDAY: Photos, analysis, video highlights, stats, quotes* * *
Updated: 6:45 p.m.
The Bengals waited until the last second to pull the plug on the Browns playoff party Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium and when Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson's last-gasp bid for a 29-yard winning touchdown pass fell harmlessly at the feet of Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the end zone, Cincinnati's 19-14 victory in a whirlpool of wind was complete and the Browns' wait was just beginning.
"We didn't want any hats being pulled out of boxes and cigars being broken out," said Bengals kicker Shayne Graham with the 9-6 Browns now waiting another week to see if they get into the playoffs.
Wide receiver T.J. Houhmandzadeh had his quietest day of the season, but he was making noise just the same.
"I guarantee that their equipment people brought the hats and the T-shirts," said Houshmandzadeh of the playoff merchandise. "And now they will box them back up and put them on the airplane, go back to Cleveland and hopefully get them out next week."
The Bengals did it with that age-old AFC North formula, surviving quarterback Carson Palmer's second-worst passer rating of his career (44.8) with another 130-yard career effort from running back Kenny Watson and four interceptions from their George Orwell secondary.
"1984 is the best year," said cornerback Leon Hall after he supplied a franchise-tying record for rookies with his fifth interception. "All of us coming in are starting to get that experience."
With injuries to starting safeties Madieu Williams and Dexter Jackson (Marvin Lewis said they went down in a span of 10 minutes in Thursday's practice), the Bengals lined up a secondary in which rookie free safety Marvin White (three weeks past his 24th birthday) was the oldest player. Hall and fellow cornerback Johnathan Joseph, both born in 1984, each had a pick and strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe, born in 1985, had two interceptions in his first NFL start and added nine tackles.
The four interceptions were Cincinnati's most in 20 games, since the Bengals had four against the Browns in the 30-0 win back on Nov. 26, 2006.
The 30-degree temperature and 18-degree wind chill gusting at highs of 29 miles-per-hour weren't exactly a recipe for offense. The Bengals receiver duo had season lows with T.J. Houshmandzadeh grabbing just two catches (one for a touchdown) and Chad Johnson mustering just 44 yards as Palmer had his worst statistical day since his third NFL start and a 43.4 rating.
The teams that both had more than 500 yards and combined for 11 touchdown passes in the Browns 51-45 win three months ago could only combine for 650 yards and six interceptions. By allowing the Bengals just 270 yards, it was only the second time this season that Cleveland's last-in-the-league defense held a team under 300 yards, including last week's 232-yarder to Buffalo in a virtual blizzard.
"This was a very tough game for us today. We owned and controlled our own destiny," said Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards. "(Cincinnati) was a team that we thought, if we jumped on them early, we could take away their will to win. We wanted to grind them down, but the Bengals have a great offense and today they got away from us."
The kids were also huge in a big part of the division formula. The Bengals let the Browns roll up 136 yards rushing on 5.2 per carry, but Jamal Lewis' longest was only 15 yards and the Bengals kept him under 100 yards with 92 on 21 carries.
Compare that to his 216 yards in the Mistake on the Lake back in September when three of the runs went for 144 yards.
"We were pinching in the defense. We wanted to make him bounce it outside," White said. "He's good, but not as good side to side."
"Marvin and I were talking before the game that the future is now," Ndukwe said.
Anderson, who had missed the last eight games with a knee injury, had speculated last week that Sunday would be his last home game as a Bengal because of management's concerns about his health.
Anderson and starting right tackle Stacy Andrews rotated every two series, and Palmer tried to talk Anderson into an extra series. Anderson ended up playing most of the second half, including the last drive in which Watson went for 26 yards on eight carries.
The big run came when wide receiver Chad Johnson ripped off 16 yards on a double reverse with Palmer throwing the big lead pulling block on safety Brodney Pool. After the second longest run of his career, Johnson told Palmer that "he appreciated it."
After his 180th game, seventh most in Bengals history, Anderson admitted he does think he'll return, saying he wanted to "wild it up" for Cleveland week.
"But you never know," he said. "Yeah, I wanted to show them I can still play. I feel pretty good. I'm rusty. I probably played too much. But, yeah, I think I showed them I can still do it."
Although he didn't mention former Bengals safety David Fulcher by name, he excoriated an "ex Bengal" for saying on the radio the Bengals would quit in these last few games.
"What's so amazing to me is those guys who were here during a lot of the losing years talk smack," Anderson said. "We do have some professionalism. We do have pride. Things didn't go our way this year. But dog god, in '03, '04, '05, we were in there fighting for it. This year it didn't bounce our way, but ex-Bengals, don't kill us."
"I remember these games and guys would have their suitcases packed, helmets packed, trucks packed and they were gone," Anderson said of the 2-14 and 3-13 teams. "And they never would have come out here and put forth the effort this team did today."
But on the first play following the two-minute warning, Watson fumbled at the Browns 17 with 1:46 left when linebacker D'Qwell Jackson hopped on a fumble caused by linebacker Andra Davis.
With the ball on the Bengals 44 and 18 seconds left, Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones knocked away a pass to Edwards at the Bengals 20, and then cornerback Blue Adams stopped wide receiver Joe Jurevicius at the Bengals 35 before Derek Anderson ran six yards out of bounds to set up the last play.
"We were in a victory defense; just playing a loose Cover 2 and knocking the ball down," White said.
After getting burned by five Derek Anderson touchdown passes three months ago in the 51-45 blast, the Bengals' fourth interception of Anderson on Sunday put Cincinnati on the brink of putting away the Browns with 7:35 left in the game when Joseph stepped in front of Browns tight end Kellen Winslow.
But on the next snap, Houshmandzadeh fell down on his route and cornerback Leigh Bodden picked it off and ran it back to the Bengals 16 to set up Anderson's five-yard touchdown pass to Edwards with 5:57 left in the game to cut the Bengals lead to 19-14.
The Bengals 19-0 halftime stranglehold on the Browns disappeared with the wind when Kyle Larson's 16-yard punt into the gusts gave Cleveland the ball on the Bengals 42 with 14 minutes left in the game.
But defensive end Justin Smith, working against Rookie of the Year Joe Thomas at left tackle, knocked down Anderson's fourth-and-nine pass from the Bengals 29 with 11:29 left in the game. That came two snaps after Smith hauled down Lewis for a yard.
But the Bengals offense could go nowhere into the wind in the fourth quarter. It looked like it converted a third down on a pass to Houshmandzadeh, but he was called for pushing off on rookie cornerback Eric Wright, setting set up Larson's short punt.
Watson was stymied until the game's last drive after gaining 99 yards on 18 carries in the first half. He had just 104 on 22 carries in the middle of the third quarter, and when punt returner Josh Cribbs blew out of a tackle by Blue Adams for a 19-yard return, the Browns were rolling at the Bengals 48, down 19-7 with nine minutes left.
If the Bengals did offer a glimpse of the future with Ndukwe and White, it made the present of the Browns miserable.
With the fifth-ranked Browns offense blanked headiing into the first series of the second half, White had position in front of Winslow in the end zone, and as they leaped for the ball White batted it up in the air long enough for Ndukwe to haul in his second interception of the day.
Winslow had seven catches, but for only 73 yards, with the longest a 22-yarder.
As the clock ticked under four minutes in the third quarter, the goose egg still lived.
The Browns finally got on the board with 40 seconds left in the third quarter when Edwards cut inside cornerback Deltha O'Neal and caught an easy two-yard touchdown pass for his 14th score of the season to set the Browns season record and cut the score to 19-7.
The Bengals reversed a season-long worth of trends in the first half as they roared to a 19-0 halftime lead late in the second quarter, a nightmarish spot this season.
The Bengals, who had allowed points in the last 2:06 of the first half in 11 games this season, scored two touchdowns in the final 1:05 on points set up on interceptions from Ndukwe and Hall.
Trailing 6-0, Derek Anderson inexplicably tried to get his high-octane offense in gear from his own 5 with 1:13 left in the half. But when running back Jason Wright never turned around on a pass over the middle, Ndukwe, the Notre Dame safety taken in the seventh round, darted in front and rolled 44 yards down the sideline to the Browns 5 with left 1:27 in the half.
"Check it," he said. "I think I got in."
Palmer, who finished just 11-of-21 for 115 yards, cashed it right away as the Bengals broke their drought of seven straight trips into the red zone without a touchdown when his play-action fake sprung Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh muscled past Bodden and he chased down Palmer's floater with 1:05 left in the half that made it 13-0.
Why there was a next pass, who knows? But Anderson threw it to no one in particular over the middle and Hall made a leaping fingertip grab and ran it back to the Cleveland 20. That gave him a share of the Bengals rookie interception record with five this season, tying him with safety Tommy Casanova and linebacker Odell Thurman.
"We've been a pretty good two-minute team throughout the year," said Browns head coach Romeo Crennel when asked why he didn't sit on the ball. "We felt that if we could get a field goal, it would benefit us. So, that's what we tried to do."
After an illegal formation penalty on the Bengals, their second flag of the half, Palmer hit tight end Reggie Kelly slicing inside safety Sean Jones down the middle for 24 yards to set up Watson's one-yard touchdown run with 26 seconds left behind both Anderson and Andrews with Andrews as an extra tight end.
Head coach Marvin Lewis opted to go for two, but the dump pass to Watson was stopped.
"We had a chance to go up three touchdowns," Lewis said of his decision to go for the two-point conversion.
It was one of the only times the Browns stopped Watson all day as he ended the half with 99 yards on 18 carries. The idea was to pound it on the blustery day and with Anderson and Andrews taking turns at right tackle, the Bengals had the ball three more minutes than the Browns in the half.
Palmer made plays when he had to, ending the half 8-of-13 for 76 yards and the defense helped him survive an interception. A week after getting lit up by the 49ers on the ground, the defense responded by holding Lewis to 43 yards on 11 carries. Anderson, who never got the big play he did in the 51-45 game, was 7-of-15 for just 65 yards.
The Bengals lost a touchdown to replay but got a 38-yard field goal from the gods when Graham's franchise-breaking kick hit the top right of the upright and bounced through to give the Bengals a 6-0 lead with 5:09 left in half.
"On millions and millions of kicks, high school, college, and pros, I've never seen it," Graham said.
It looked briefly like it was 10-0 and that Palmer had hit wide receiver Chad Johnson with a 25-yard touchdown pass over Bodden on first down. The refs on the field ruled that Johnson had broken the plane of the goal line with the ball as both leaped into the air. But a replay showed that Johnson never had possession of the ball long enough and it was an incompletion.
A third-down pass to wide receiver Chris Henry slanting inside was incomplete, and on came Graham. After he hit the field goal, his 30th of the season, former Bengals defensive lineman Shaun Smith got in Graham's face to taunt and the 200-pound Graham pushed him away in giving away about 100 pounds.
"Heat of the moment," Graham said. "I deny it."
The Bengals followed a familiar script in taking a 3-0 lead on Graham's 29-yard field goal two minutes into the second quarter.
A 20-yard pass to Houshmandzadeh on third-and-four and Watson's 24-yard run moved the Bengals into the red zone. But when Palmer looked off Houshmandzadeh short and tried Chad Johnson with a 20-yard pass into the end zone, it was incomplete and the Bengals had failed to score a red-zone touchdown for the 17th time in last 26 trips.
It was Graham's 29th field goal of the season, tying Doug Pelfrey's 1995 club record.
The Bengals followed that with a stout defensive stand, highlighted by White ripping the second hand from Winslow as he tried to control what would have been a big pass down the middle of the field. Then on the next snap defensive lineman Bryan Robinson forced a punt when he sacked Anderson, a rare event in a season Cleveland had just allowed 17 coming into the game.
Bengals defensive tackle Michael Myers stopped Lewis on fourth-and-one at the Bengals 20 and the first quarter ended in a scoreless scrum of what was supposed to be Shootout II.
It was only the fifth time this season that the Browns got no points in the red zone.
After losing running back DeDe Dorsey on the first snap of the game with an ankle injury following his eight-yard gain, Watson battered the Browns for 33 yards on his first six carries. Willie Anderson checked into the game on the game's third series.
The Browns' bid to strike first Sunday failed when punter Dave Zastudil bobbled the snap on Phil Dawson's 40-yard field-goal try midway through the first half. When Joseph tackled Zastudil at the Cincinnati 33, the Bengals had great field position for their second series.
But with Shaun Smith knifing through a double team at left end, Palmer was harassed on his rollout and he threw an interception to Bodden covering Houshmandzadeh on the sideline to give the Browns the ball at the Bengals 28.
"The wind sucked it back to the right," Palmer said.
With winds expected to swirl in gusts as much as 29 miles per hour and the temperature dipping to 31 degrees at the Paul Brown Stadium kickoff, the Bengals had to punt on their series against Cleveland's last-ranked defense in the NFL.
Watson was listed as the starter in place of running back Rudi Johnson (hamstring), but Dorsey got the start and ripped off an eight-yard run on the first snap of the game before leaving with a limp.
The Bengals got a first down when Watson converted a third down on a four-yard dump pass, but he got stoned on a second-and-nine when Shaun Smith, penetrated past Andrews.
Then on third-and-nine Chad Johnson slipped making his cut well past the first-down marker Bodden giving him plenty of cushion. Carson Palmer's throw hit him right in the chest, but he dropped it.
PREGAME NOTES: With winds expected to swirl in gusts as much as 29 miles per hour at Sunday's kickoff at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals saddled up for a smashmouth game against playoff hopeful Cleveland with four-time Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson but without their two starting safeties.
Anderson, who has missed the last eight games with a knee injury, wasn't listed as the starter. Rookies Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe got the nod in place of Madieu Williams (quad) and Dexter Jackson (calf).
If Anderson didn't line up as the starter but played, it marked the first time since his rookie year that he came off the bench. He did it in the first six games of the 1996 season, the last time in an Oct. 13 loss in Pittsburgh.
With Anderson speculating Sunday could be his last home appearance, the weather dictated a game that suits his power style that allowed him to be the best right tackle of his generation. Temperatures dropped to 31 degrees at kickoff as a relentless wind whipped the flags on the goal posts into a frenzy in what could make the passing game irrelevant.
If they lined up like the depth chart, White got his second NFL start at free safety and Ndukwe his first at strong.
Also inactive are defensive end Frostee Rucker, linebacker Anthony Schlegel, center Dan Santucci and tight end Nate Lawrie.
The obvious concern for the Bengals coming into such a miserable day was Browns running back Jamal Lewis. On the Sept. 16 Mistake on the Lake, Lewis rung up the second biggest rushing day against the Bengals with 216 yards, 144 of them coming on three runs. Thanks to his days with the Ravens, he already arrived with five 100-yard games at PBS.
Head coach Marvin Lewis sent out the offense to be introduced as unit and looking to up their record in black jersies and white pants to 8-11.
Joining Carson Palmer, John Thornton, and Dhani Jones as game captains were right tackle Stacy Andrews and defensive lineman Bryan Robinson. The Bengals won the toss and received.