ATLANTA - For the third straight game, the Bengals exploded on offense with either a big passing game or a big running game. But for the third straight game they couldn't solve the red zone and couldn't time up some big passes that would have broken open the game in Sunday's 39-32 loss at the Georgia Dome.
Quarterback Carson Palmer took the blame for two incomplete bombs to wide receiver Terrell Owens, one early and one late. The late one, with less than 10 minutes left and the Bengals trailing, 32-25, came from the Falcons 39 on first down and Owens beat one-on-one coverage down the left sideline. But when he turned to catch the underthrown ball, one of his feet touched the sideline at the 5.
"With the route that was called I had the guy beat, and it was just me trying to make an adjustment on the ball," Owens said. "It is just something that we have to correct, and we have to connect. It was unfortunate because if we score a touchdown there it's a different game."
Palmer said he underthrew Owens by five to 10 yards. In the first quarter, Owens won again down the left sideline, but after Palmer stepped up in the pocket he said, "I threw it out of bounds. He did a good job, he ran a great route, we picked up the protection, I've got to do a better job getting the ball to him."
Still, Palmer was deadly going no-huddle for virtually all of the game, which was dictated by the game plan and not the first-half rout, revived the passing game and Palmer indicated the Bengals were going to keep going with it until somebody stops it.
Owens was huge in the comeback with nine catches for 88 yards, including his 150th career touchdown that puts him fifth on the all-time list. It came on a 19-yard screen that included a big-time stiffarm.
"That's what I do," Owens said. "Regardless of how a lot of people have speculated that I can't play this game. They've said I've slowed down. They said you can't play into your 30s anymore. I'm going to play with a chip on my shoulder. I'm going to display that with my play on the field as you saw on (wide receiver Jordan) Shipley's catch."
Owens referred to Shipley's 64-yard touchdown play that came right after Owens' TD and on a third-and-long blitz to cut the lead to 24-19. Shipley read the blitz, turned to his "hot" route in the middle of the field and raced all the way with Owens providing the final five yards on his block of cornerback Brent Grimes.
"Great block," Shipley said of the man with 150 touchdowns helping him get the first of his career. "I just got behind T.O."
"I've been playing this game a long time. You don't want to block anyone behind him," Owens said. "I saw No. 20 had the angle on him and I adjusted myself to get Shipley in. Great read by Carson, great adjustment on Shipley's behalf."
Palmer, the man who brought Owens to Cincinnati, continues to be glad he did. Owens is on pace for 1,504 yards, 107 catches and eight touchdowns.
"He comes up big every game," Palmer said. "There's a reason he's the No. 1 (active) guy yards or receptions or whatever. He's a good player."
Owens knows it and in that second half he showed how his competitive streak keeps him going at 36.
"We made mistakes to stall drives, kill ourselves, but at some point we have to have a lot of pride and I think we showed it in the second half," Owens said. "With the way we came out, we showed we can be the team that going into the season we expected to be. For whatever reason, there's been a lot of miscues. We got ourselves back in the ball game and then allowed ourselves to get out of the ballgame.
"I can't put a finger on one thing that we really didn't do in the first half that we did in the second half. This game is all about want-to and I tried to spark the team with my play. Once I get the ball in my hands, there's plenty of playmaking ability I have and so I just tried to do whatever I could to get this team rolling. That's why they brought me here. My goal is to get this team to the playoffs and do some special things. Right now, I'm not sure what we need to do different, but all across the board from the coaches down we need to be doing something different."
One thing may be to go no-huddle just about every snap but Palmer cautioned, as always, the Bengals use it based on opponents.
"There are some teams it doesn't seem like it's a good idea and there are some teams it seems like a good idea and this week it happened to seem to be like a good idea to be in it a majority of the time," he said.
A big selling point to the no-huddle was Benson averaging more than five yards per run on snaps in the scheme coming into the game and while he averaged 3.5 Sunday (20 for 70), he had some big runs, including an eight-yarder up the middle in the first quarter in which he put his head down and literally knocked safety Thomas DeCoud out of the game. As Falcons coach Mike Smith pointed out, it was just a flat-out good football play within the rules.
"When you're a runner and that means that you've caught the ball and have taken two steps, now you're a runner and there is no rule concerning helmet-to-helmet contact," Smith said. "Helmet-to-helmet contact is only on a defenseless player."
Benson: "It felt good not because the guy had to leave the game, but because I was going up and down the field making plays."
But the Bengals still had trouble giving Benson room in the red zone and he had a critical fumble on the snap after the tying bomb to Owens was overthrown Benson wasn't sure what he did, but he let the ball fall out of his arm he tried to make a move and he was as devastated as he's ever been.
"A freak thing. Never in my life," he said. "I don't know if it hit my knee or what. If that was supposed to happen in my career, I'm glad I've got it behind me. It came at a bad time, though."
Which sums up where this offense is in its first three-game losing streak in two years. The bad plays offset the big stats.