Updated: 9:45 p.m.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis called it as well as Carson Palmer has ever played and the numbers from Sunday's 34-20 win over the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium against the NFL's top-ranked defense backed him up. Palmer's 157.2 passer rating is his career high on 16-of-21 passing for 269 yards and four touchdowns, besting the 146.7 he had in the 45-10 win over the Bears last year.
Palmer, who turns 31 Monday, said he didn't feel like a camp counselor pitching two TDs to the 24-year-old Jerome Simpson and one each to the 22-year-old Jermaine Gresham and 25-year-old Jordan Shipley.
"I felt like a kid," Palmer said.
It's the fifth time Palmer has thrown at least four touchdowns and the first since the five TDs against the Bears last season.
MERRY XMAS: The defense provided two game-changing plays: Three snaps on the Bengals 1 late in the first half in which the Bengals stoned the Chargers and gave San Diego just a field goal and SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga's interception on the last play of the third quarter that turned out to break open a 13-10 game.
Maualuga, covering tight end Randy McMichael on a seam route down the middle, displayed some speed and moves when he returned it 47 yards to the Chargers 21 for the club's longest interception return in two years. It took Palmer just four plays to make it 20-10 on a three-yard touchdown pass to Shipley.
It was Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers' last pass with the wind before throwing against it in the fourth quarter.
"We weren't rushing, but let's go ahead and get the play off if we can," Rivers said. "Rey was running with Randy. I thought Randy was going to wheel around him. Rey wheeled right with him and made a good play. It was underthrown and Rey made a good play."
Maualuga knew he had to stay with McMichael if he ran a "vertical route" up the field.
"It was a tight end motion across," Maualuga said. "It looked like (Rivers) was just throwing up the field, but when I turned around, Merry Christmas."
It turned out that Maualuga was celebrating the longest interception return since cornerback Leon Hall went 50 yards for a touchdown against Cleveland on Dec. 21, 2008.
JOLTIN' JEROME: Everyone felt good for Jerome Simpson, the 2008 second-rounder who has been inactive or hasn't played in 35 of his possible 46 games before Sunday's career 124-yard game on six catches and two touchdowns. Running back Cedric Benson "pied" him in the face with shaving cream and the man Simpson replaced, Chad Ochocinco, tweeted, 'Awesome game today, no terrell owens or ochocinco and we win and carson has an unbelievable day, i should get hurt more often #WhoDey"
Simpson's first TD came on a 10-yard fade in the end zone, which he calls, "The 'Rome Zone. Anything in that area."
"We don't get to suit everybody up. The times we've had him suited up, we just didn't get him into the plan until late, and it's my fault," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We had it planned a week ago to get him in there ready to go, and that's just what you've got to do. Otherwise it's hard on the people making play calls, not being sure who's in the game or where he is. You get into the substitution problems with the guys that are not quite as experienced because they are not sure who is on the field at different times."
Lewis recalled Simpson coming to him after the Pittsburgh game two weeks ago, when he'd been inactive for the 10th time this season, and telling him he could help.
"He did," Lewis said.
"I want to play for him. I want to play for this city. I want to be coached," said the enthusiastic Simpson. "I just want to help us win games."
The most memorable scene in one of the more memorable games in Bengaldom came when Simpson signed his shoes, looked up and asked, "How many yards did I get?" He said he's going to send them to his high school in Reidsville, N.C.
In a scary moment Chargers running back Mike Tolbert, Simpson's teammate at Coastal Carolina, had to be carted off the field on a stretcher in the first quarter with a sprained neck. Before he ran back to the huddle, Simpson bent down over the stretcher to talk to him.
"I just told him he'd be OK and I'd call him," Simpson said.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Running back Bernard Scott scored his first rushing touchdown in his 28th NFL game Sunday, a 10-yard run that finished off the Bengals scoring. He had a season-high 50 yards on 11 carries to go with Cedric Benson's 52 yards on 24 carries. The Bengals rushed 38 times for 102 yards, their most attempts since Detroit last season.
» The Chargers came into the game leading the NFL in racking up sacks per pass, but with right tackle Anthony Collins getting his second start in place of the injured Dennis Roland (knee), Palmer didn't get sacked.
"Two really good pass rushers and our two tackles on the outside did a great job," Palmer said. "(Left tackle Andrew Whitworth) has been playing like he's the best offensive lineman in the league for two years now. He's always one-on-one with no help, which is tough on any tackle. But Whit's as good as it gets there ... I thought (Collins) came in and played great. He hasn't had a ton of shots this year, but another guy his number was called tonight and he did a great job."
» Simpson became Palmer's fifth 100-yard receiver, joining The Ocho, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Henry and Terrell Owens.
» The Panthers have locked up the first draft pick. The Bengals would get the second pick if they lose Sunday in Baltimore while Denver beats the Chiefs. Denver gets the second pick if the Broncos and Bengals both lose or win.
The Ravens have locked up a playoff berth as they prepare for the Bengals.