Posted: 8:30 p.m.
While everyone in America took shots at offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's game plan, Johnson, the one guy who never shied away from ripping it when he didn't have a big day in a big game, quietly called it "fine" during the postgame autopsy of the 34-16 loss in Indianapolis.
Gone were the tears from Jacksonville, the frustration from the playoffs, and the profanities of Baltimore after the feared Bengals passing game threw just eight passes in the first half.
Johnson said he could understand it, given that the Jaguars had rushed for 375 yards against Indy the week before. But with their depleted safety spots down to special teamers Matt Giordano and Dexter Reid, a guy on the street a month ago, even the Colts seem surprised the Bengals didn't take their shots downfield.
"Those guys didn't throw it as much as we thought they would," said Colts coach Tony Dungy. "Watching them on tape this week, they were scary, and they were red-hot."
Maybe Johnson played it cool because he knew the Bengals tried to get him the ball and he dropped three, one of which would have been a huge 21-yard pickup.
"We had dropped balls; I think that's the biggest thing," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "When you have a couple of drops, it throws you off rhythm and that makes a big difference in the game."
A big game by Johnson would be a big boost in Denver and he's got a history against Broncos Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey dating back to his 149-yard day on Monday night in the Bengals 2004 victory. That would also quiet some murmurings about Johnson in big games.
But if he dropped some balls and had just 59 yards in the playoff game last season and had 29 yards in the 2003 regular-season finale and just 52 in Jacksonville in '05, he also had 117 against Buffalo at home last year, 99 in the division clincher in Detroit, 161 against Baltimore's top five defense in 04, not to mention this year's hellacious five-game stretch when the Bengals were on the brink of playoff elimination and they have needed every yard.
Yet he'll be under the microscope this week for those drops and for missing a chunk of the third quarter getting an I.V., which has almost become a weekly event. Unfortunately for him it came on a night ESPN aired a feature that followed him through his daily ritual of a McDonald's drive-thru, and that opened up the crew to question his diet.
Manning, who carved the Bengals by hitting 22 of his first 24 passes, thinks that's a great idea. He indicated to reporters he couldn't believe the Bengals let him have the five-to-eight-yard pass so easily.
Palmer's point is that if the Bengals scored three touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals, the strategy would have been perfect.
"He was money. He put the ball where he wanted to, but we just didn't play well," said defensive end Justin Smith.
The Bengals appeared to opt for a nickel defense most of the night, and it looked like safety Kevin Kaesviharn played in place of linebackers such as Rashad Jeanty and Caleb Miller even though Jeanty and Miller have been two of Cincinnati's more productive players as of late.
Lewis said the Colts did what the Bengals wanted, but ...
"That's really what they do in their offense, and then they work to try and get the chunk," Lewis said of the short passes. "And you want to try and limit it, but we didn't do a very good job of tackling those catches in the first half on those calls when we made them check it down. And that's what you want to do - make them check it down and maybe bat one in the air and get them off rhythm. And (Manning) was able to stay in rhythm and convert the third downs."
Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison had Manning's longest throw, a 22-yarder through the middle of a passive two-deep zone that the Bengals pretty much stayed with until the Colts got close, when it looked like the Bengals went more man-to-man. But the Bengals still appeared afraid to let Harrison get behind them and the longest of his three touchdown catches was just four yards.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
Lewis is under the gun because the Bengals called a timeout following Chad Johnson's 21-yard catch on the first series of the game that put the Bengals on the red zone doorstep. The belief is that the Colts would have never challenged the catch if play continued. It appeared the Bengals took the timeout because right tackle Willie Anderson limped off the field on his injured foot.
How much faith do the Bengals have in backup right tackle Stacy Andrews? Even though Anderson left the game, it appeared they kept the same strategy they had with their four-time Pro Bowler and let Andrews take on 9.5-sack man Robert Mathis one-on-one. Mathis didn't get a sack, but he gave Palmer some hellacious shots.
The Bengals defense gave up a crushing 41-yard run to running back Joseph Addai in a 17-13 game. Rudi Johnson's last 40-yarder came on a 52-yarder against Cleveland 35 games ago on Nov. 28, 2004.