Updated: 9:50 p.m.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - The Bengals passing game looked as good as it has since the heady days of November 2006 when quarterback Carson Palmer's first two touchdown passes of the year staked the Bengals to a 14-7 lead over the Bills Saturday night at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
After the Bills jumped to a 21-14 halftime lead, Palmer's old friend and backup, Bills backup Ryan Fitzpatrick engineered a third-quarter touchdown drive that gave Buffalo a 28-20 lead and then Bills cornerback Reggie Corner returned a Jordan Palmer interception 20 yards for a touchdown to account for the 35-20 final score.
Bengals backup quarterback Jordan Palmer engineered a Bengals drive late in the fourth quarter to the Bills 14 but a fumble by wide receiver Quan Cosby gave the Bills the ball with 1:27 left and cost the Bengals a chance to close the final margin.
There were a few second-half highlights with the backups as the Bengals suffered through another penalty-ridden night. They finished with 12 penalties for 122 yards.
Mike Nugent did make a bold move to make the club when he cut the lead to 21-17 on a 54-yard field goal four minutes into the second half as the kicking competition keeps seesawing with one preseason game left Thursday in Indianapolis. Dave Rayner answered with a 32-yarder with 1:25 left in the third quarter to make it 28-20.
Rookie defensive tackle Geno Atkins came up with his fourth-and-a-half sack and wide receiver Quan Cosby kept his roster bid alive, this time with a 44-yard catch in the fourth quarter from Jordan Palmer.
The Bengals survived a scare midway through the third quarter when rookie cornerback Brandon Ghee took a shot to the head when he tackled running back Chad Simpson on the sidelines. Both guys were down for a frightening few moments, but Simpson got up first and as both the ambulance and the cart came out. Ghee then sat up and chose to ride out on the cart.
He was not expected to return but the sideline reported he had movement of his arms and legs. It's been a tough season for the third-rounder. He had missed the previous two games with a quad injury.
But the story of the game was how the Bengals first offense clicked.
Mainly working out of the no-huddle, Palmer hit nine of 11 passes for 95 yards and was done for the night after hitting wide receiver Chad Ochocinco running across the back of the end zone away from cornerback Leodis McKelvin for a six-yard touchdown just seconds into the second quarter. That one didn't come in no-huddle and was converted when Palmer made a run-fake, rolled the other way, and delivered it on the run with linebacker Chris Kelsay about to drop him. That ended a nine-play, 63-yard drive that featured a nifty 12-yard out pattern to wide receiver Terrell Owens that looked like they'd been playing together for years.
After the score, The Ocho's celebration was only giving the ball to Owens.
Both drives started with big-time kick returns by Adam Jones and he added a big play on third down at cornerback when he stayed on the shoulder of speedy wide receiver Lee Evans on third-and-long and forced an incompletion from Bills quarterback Trent Edwards. Jones injured his knee in the third quarter, returned, and then left again late in the third quarter with a neck injury and didn't return.
The Bengals broke fast with Jones' 51-yard kick return to open the game and then scored in the first 2:49 of the game on a five-play drive out of the no-huddle capped by Palmer's first touchdown pass of the preseason to wide-open rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham from nine yards out.
"I'm feeling more and more comfortable every time I throw a pass, whether it's in seven-on-seven, full practice or the games," Palmer said. "I love what Jermaine is doing. I love what Terrell is doing and Chad is playing like he believes he's the best receiver in the league. But penalties are still hurting us."
After scoring his first NFL touchdown, Gresham couldn't believe how wide open he was.
"Honestly, they didn't cover me on that play," he said. "But it's really a relief, a big relief. I was really waiting to get that first one."
Palmer got an 11-yard run from running back Cedric Benson and Ochocinco set up the touchdown when he caught a 17-yard laser over the middle as he beat cornerback Terrence McGee.
The defense came out just as crisp after a tough first snap when White was hit with a penalty for roughing Edwards on his first snap since re-signing with the Bengals. Cornerback Leon Hall was also called for pass interference on the play, but Hall teamed with right end Antwan Odom to drop Spiller for a seven-yard loss on a sweep and linebacker Michael Johnson picked up a third-down sack with help from left end Jon Fanene.
The offense stayed no-huddle and right away got a 16-yard throw from Palmer to Owens that drew some boos from the crowd that embraced Owens last year. But the Bengals couldn't stay away from the holding calls. Left guard Nate Livings got this one and after Gresham got back 14 yards over the middle they faced a fourth-and-one from the Bills 43. But strong safety Donte Whitner penetrated the play to the left edge and stopped Benson for no gain.
That set up a seamless Buffalo scoring drive of just eight plays in which Spiller hurt the Bengals defense with a couple of jitterbug runs up the middle, one ending on Fanene's penalty after the snap. An eight-yard throw to Evans in the flat on third-and-seven set up Edwards' 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Roscoe Parrish running alone across the middle that tied it at 7 with 4:18 left in the first quarter.
Jones' 39-yard bolt on the kickoff transitioned into another smooth no-huddle operation. Benson rode good blocking up the middle for a 20-yard cutback run, and Palmer basically dinked and dunked into the end zone. There was the 12-yard route to Owens, a seven-yarder to him over the middle, and a nine-yarder to Gresham in the right flat. But Gresham moved the offense back five yards from the 1 when he flinched before a snap to set up the six-yard score to the Ocho.
It was Ocho's best night of the summer with two catches for 23 yards and Owens had three balls for 35 yards. Benson looked primed for New England with 50 yards on eight carries.
The Bills came back to tie it on the next drive at 14 with the Bengals' first front seven having a difficult time grappling with the elusive Spiller and his 52 first-half yards on 12 carries. Pat Sims was in at defensive tackle for Tank Johnson and the backup secondary was in on Spiller's tying one-yard touchdown run with 8:33 left in the half. The Bills popped a 16-yard screen pass to fullback Corey McIntyre with linebackers like Rey Maualuga on the ground that was a foreshadowing of things to come.
At that point, the Bengals began to mix and match on offense. In backup quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan's second series, Evan Mathis worked at center, Andre Smith at right tackle and Dennis Roland at left tackle.
The Bills took the first-half lead out of their own no-huddle with six plays run in 1:39. Linebacker Brandon Johnson got taken to the ground on Spiller's 26-yard screen and White couldn't close the angle.
Nugent drove the second-half kickoff into the end zone before his 54-yarder, matching Rayner's end zone kick in the first half. Rayner then responded with another kickoff into the end zone.
Rookie offensive lineman Reggie Stephens limped off the field in the third quarter, but he came back to play left guard while Mathis finished out at center.
The Bengals' ninth penalty of the game, a hold by tight end Dan Coats, negated running back James Johnson's 46-yard run, and set up Jordan Palmer's first-and-20 pass from deep in his territory. Palmer went for wide receiver Jerome Simpson, but Corner cut in front for the second pass Palmer has had picked for a touchdown this preseason.
PREGAME NOTES: With about a dozen players back home nursing some type of nick, the 2-1 Bengals were intent on having a relatively short evening of work if what is left of their first teams came out sharply Saturday night against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in their fourth preseason game.
The hardest hit position group is at safety, where the top two strong safeties were out and backup free safety Gibril Wilson looks to be headed to injured reserve with a torn-up knee. Special teams captain Kyries Hebert, who has started twice in his 31 regular-season games, drew the nod at strong safety, with Roy Williams (ankle) and Chinedum Ndukwe (unknown) scratched.
As they have all preseason, Jon Fanene started in place of left end Robert Geathers (foot), rookie free-agent Joe Tronzo started at fullback in place of Fui Vakapuna (shoulder), and Terrell Owens started at wide receiver in place of Antonio Bryant.
Also out on offense were wide receiver Maurice Purify (knee), running back Brian Leonard (foot), and tackle Anthony Collins (foot). On defense, lineman Frostee Rucker (hamstring) wasn't available, as well as two guys that haven't worked all preseason in linebacker Rashad Jeanty (leg) and safety Tom Nelson (knee). Also not dressed were wide receiver Andre Caldwell (unknown), defensive tackle Tank Johnson (unknown) and cornerback Johnny Sears (unknown).
The Bengals' task on defense is pretty clear cut with the emergence of cat-quick No. 1 pick C.J. Spiller getting the start at running back. Spiller ended more than a year of futility in the last Bills outing when his 31-yard touchdown run stopped a streak of seven straight preseason games the No. 1 offense had failed to score a touchdown.
Not running that first-team offense is Ryan Fitzpatrick, the former Bengals backup quarterback who started half of the games for the Bills last season. But it's not because he doesn't like the fit with new head coach Chain Gailey's scheme.
"I really like Chan's style of offense and the way he coaches it," Fitzpatrick said earlier this week. "The best thing he does is adapt to the personnel and the skill level that he has to do whatever it takes to keep the ball moving. The way the offense is organized, to the defense it looks complicated but it's simple to the guys playing in it."
Fitzpatrick's 4-3-1 finish at the end of '08 proved to be one of the sparks to the Bengals '09 AFC North title. Just a few days ago he welcomed a key member of that division championship in tight end J.P. Foschi.
With the return of Reggie Kelly and the drafting No. 1 of Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals didn't re-sign Foschi but the Bills needed help quickly at tight end and he's ready to make his '10 debut against, quite naturally, the Bengals.
"He showed up at practice (Tuesday night) and made couple of nice blocks and some nice catches," Fitzpatrick said. "I didn't know where he was coming from until after practice."
Also earlier in the week, some of the Bills defensive backs weighed in on playing against old teammate Terrell Owens. Cornerback Drayton Florence said they will be Mr. Freeze to Batman and Robin while cornerback Terrence McGee is exactly wheeling out the welcome mat.
"It'll definitely be good to see him, but it's no fun and games out there trying to cover him," McGee said. "You definitely don't want to get beat deep or beat for a big play. Before the game it'll be fun to say hello, but during the game its business. I will not smile if a deep route is caught on me. It would not be fun and games."
Backup strong safety Bryan Scott says it helps to clear away the aura.
"To be honest it's kind of like the mystique is no longer there," Scott said. " He's an incredible athlete. He works very hard at what he does. You see how he trains and you see how he plays, but you know what to expect from him."
The 6:30 p.m. start came courtesy of Kids Night on a splendid late summer evening in Western New York. The dry 77 degrees had absolutely no humidity when the Bengals took the field in their all white uniforms and got the ball when they won the toss. Head coach Marvin Lewis' captains were cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, offensive linemen Nate Livings and Kyle Cook and linebacker Michael Johnson.