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The March conquers North


Updated: 9 p.m.

If John Elway and Denver have "The Drive," then Carson Palmer and Cincinnati now have "The March."

In vintage '09 fashion it started out as a 98-yard slog straight out of Valley Forge with the first play losing a yard and the first five snaps netting all of 20 yards. But it ended in beautiful quick time with Palmer's six-yard arrow to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal with 2:03 left that gave the Bengals the AFC North title with a 17-10 victory over Kansas City on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

The natural world even seemed to celebrate the club's seventh division title when a snow shower passed over PBS just about as the game ended, supplying the 64,333 with some confetti. 

The drive that began with running back Cedric Benson losing a yard ended with the 10th win of the season and fourth secured in the final 2:03.

"Storybook," Benson said. "That's Bengals football."

It was the seventh time this season that Palmer engineered a tying or go-ahead score in the final 2:03 and it was the fourth game they won in the final 123 seconds.

They savored that 2009 AFC North title for about 20 minutes, according to middle linebacker Dhani Jones. Hatless head coach Marvin Lewis didn't do it at all, eschewing the obligatory Gatorade shower and the division championship baseball hats that were handed out in the moments after the Bengals finished off their sixth straight home win in December.

"There are two more hats to get," snapped Lewis in his postgame news conference, unhappy with the way his '05 champions lost their last three games after they savored too much their clinching with a win over the Lions. "If we want to earn a hat, there are two more to earn. That's what I told them. Enjoy it. Congratulations. But there are two more to earn, and that's a different atmosphere than there was (four) years ago in Detroit, which is good. I think this group knows that there are more out there."

Lewis' two hats are the AFC Champions and Super Bowl Champions. Palmer, wearing a hat from a golf club in California called "The Bridges," knows which one he wants.

"I'm going to wait and wear the Super Bowl one," he said.

One of the postgame locker-room themes was the maturity of this team compared to the one that clinched the last title on Dec. 18, 2005.

"At that point, I assumed we would do this every year and that we would definitely win the Super Bowl within a few years," Palmer said. "I took winning the AFC North for granted. I was young and didn't understand that this doesn't happen every single year. When I was younger, I assumed it did. We have a few players that have been through that situation here and are on this team now. We understand this is a rare opportunity. You have to take advantage of this opportunity now. You must play like every game is your last in this situation, because this situation doesn't come every year."

*TOUGH BREAK: *There was one sad moment in the postgame. Rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga had on his AFC North Champs hat while leaning on crutches with a season-ending broken ankle. He got injured on a cut block to his ankle with 1:26 left in the first quarter on Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles' 42-yard run that got called back on holding. But word is he doesn't require surgery and will be back running in time for the start of offseason workouts in March.

MVP, MVP?It will be interesting to see who the MVP of this team is as chosen by the Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. If this space had a vote it would go to running back Cedric Benson, but an argument could be made for either cornerback, Leon Hall or Johnathan Joseph.

On Sunday it was Hall's day with his career-high sixth interception to match Joseph, a leaping grab on a Matt Cassel bomb in front of wide receiver Chris Chambers sprinting down the left sideline at the Bengals 19 with 66 seconds left to secure the playoffs.

This was more like it. Hall was coming off his worst game of the season in San Diego last week and responded with the kind of game he and Joseph have had all year. The two top Chiefs wide receivers, Chambers and Dwayne Bowe, didn't have a touchdown or a catch longer than 18 yards. Hall and Joseph have allowed just seven touchdown passes this season to starting wide receivers. 

"I was just trying to make sure I caught the ball and he didn't," Hall said. "In that type of defense we were playing that's just kind of a dead zone back there on the sideline, which has the corner sink. I lost it for a second in the lights and I was able to get a view of it at the end."

Hall was reminded how the season started on another desperation bomb thrown at him and the Bengals protecting a one-point lead with 11 seconds left. It was the opener. Denver. Hall batted it in the air and it somehow got deflected to a receiver out of the play and it turned into an 87-yard touchdown and loss.

"No, no. I learned from that," Hall said. "Either catch it or knock it straight down."

He caught this one and it was fitting that the defense should finish off the title. They've carried the offense all year and did it again Sunday even though they let running back Jamaal Charles (102 yards on 24 carries) become just the second back to rush for 100 yards against the Bengals this season in joining Cleveland's Jerome Harrison and ending a streak of 10 straight games without allowing one.

But for the fifth time in eight home games this season the Bengals allowed 12 points or less. And they are back to allowing just 15.9 points per game, which would be second to only the 1976 team. With 254 points allowed and one game left, they should set the record for allowing the fewest points in a Bengals 16-game season, which is 284 in 1978.

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