'We let one get away'

Posted: 6:30 p.m.

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Chad Johnson breaks loose on his 41-yard TD reception. (Bengals photo)

Two old Bengals villains, quarterback Kelly Holcomb and the Bills special teams, surfaced Christmas Eve at Paul Brown Stadium and turned into the Ghosts of Christmas Present in supplying 5-10 Buffalo a 37-27 victory that took Cincinnati out of the running for a playoff bye and prevented the Bengals' franchise-tying 12th victory before a dazed 65,469.

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer pulled a groin muscle getting chased out-of-bounds the play before his game-ending interception. He said he'll be OK, but head coach Marvin Lewis put in Jon Kitna for the last few snaps.

"He wanted to go back in," Lewis said. "But the fat lady was singing."

Now whether the Bengals need him next week in the season finale in Kansas City is another matter as they stare at a first-round game here at PBS against a foe to be determined the weekend of Jan. 7-8.

The 11-4 Bengals would fall to the fourth seed in the AFC tournament with a loss to the Chiefs and two New England victories to finish the Patriots season. The Bengals would then most likely host the Jacksonville team that beat them earlier in the year. If they beat the 9-6 Chiefs, they would most likely host the Steelers.

Holcomb stays hot against Bengals

Holcomb picked up right where he left off last season when he riddled the Bengals for 413 yards and five touchdowns as a member of the Browns, completing 24 of 31 passes for 308 yards Saturday as a Bill in engineering Buffalo's first road win of the season. He completed two huge long third downs in the last killer drive that consumed 6:29 and 13 plays to set up Rian Lindell's 22-yard field goal with 58 seconds left that made it 30-27.

Then with no timeouts left Palmer hurried a throw to wide receiver Kevin Walter on the outside. It was late, and cornerback Terrence McGee (remember that name) picked it off and went 46 yards for the first interception return for a touchdown against the Bengals this season with 35 seconds left.

For the third straight game, Palmer failed in his bid to get a 12th 100 rating of the season, finishing with two interceptions for the second straight game for the first time this season, and a rating of 88 on 25-of-36 passing for 266 yards.

"I'm not saying that we (had a letdown) today, but we have to come out and play with the same tenacity that we came out to play Pittsburgh," said left tackle Levi Jones. "We let one get away."

For the first time this season the Bengals were in the minus category in the takeaway-giveaway game, and it hurt them against an offense that scored more than 30 points for the first time this season, and 20 points for just the second time in nine weeks.

"Guys have to realize that it took us 15 years to get here. It's not going to be easy for us," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "They don't start throwing you bones for another five, six, seven years. We've got to come to work, take the shovel, and break up the rocks with the sledgehammer. It's not going to be easy. It's just the hand that we've been dealt."

Lewis certainly wasn't pleased with his club's killer instinct.

"The other team wants to win just as bad as you do. You have to take it from them," Lewis said. " We sat and hung around, but we never knocked them out. You have to stop them and knock them out. We had opportunities to, and we didn't. I give them credit for keeping us from doing that."

Barely had kicker Shayne Graham broken his own Bengals season scoring record with a 31-yard field goal to give the Bengals a 17-13 lead with about five minutes left in the third quarter when McGee whipped untouched up the left sideline for a 99-yard touchdown that gave the Bills the lead right back at 20-17.

The crowd that gave the Bengals a season record attendance of 526,469 then found themselves in the middle of a slugfest.

It was the first return the Bengals have allowed for a touchdown in the 47-game era of head coach Marvin Lewis and just the second scored against them on special teams. The other came last year here in the 33-17 Buffalo victory when the Bills blocked a punt for a touchdown. It was also McGee's first return for a score this year after he had three last season.

But the Bengals came back when Palmer saw rookie wide receiver Chris Henry out of the doghouse and matched up with cornerback Jabari Greer. Henry got behind Greer and Palmer floated it over the flailing Greer for a 27-yard touchdown pass that put the Bengals back up, 24-20 with 1:36 left in third quarter.

The Bills special teams remained relentless. On the ensuing kickoff, McGee almost broke it again cutting back up the middle and only Graham's tackle saved them from another TD. It was still 36 yards long and went toward his 220 return yards that is the second most against the Bengals in a game, second only to the 229 of Desmond Howard in Detroit in 2001.

Then Holcomb fried the Cincinnati defense on a third-and-18 from the Bengals 43. He dumped a ball to wide receiver Roscoe Parrish over the middle and nickel cornerback Rashad Bauman missed the tackle and the Bills got the first down on a 28-yard pass. Holcomb then jammed it over from the one with 11:36 left to put Buffalo back in the lead at 27-24.

Bengals rookie kick returner Tab Perry got in the act when he responded with a 25-yard return that got 15 tacked on because of a hit out-of-bounds on Perry by free safety Jim Leonhard. That turned into Graham's tying 27-yard field goal with 7:27 left when Palmer couldn't hook up with Chad Johnson on a low ball at the Bills 10 on second-and-10, and he could only get a seven-yarder to tight end Matt Schobel on third-and-10.

Chad in giving mood

Santa Baby showed up late Christmas Eve, but when he did it was in the person of Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson and his 41-yard touchdown catch from Palmer that revived the listless Bengals for a 14-13 halftime lead.

The play came one snap after Johnson dropped a wide-open 20-yard pass. He responded by getting open over the middle and then outracing three defensive backs for about 20 yards across the middle before he fended off cornerback Eric King for the last few yards. Johnson then came through on his Christmas celebration even though he was stymied to do it in the end zone.

Retreating behind the Bengals bench, Johnson grabbed presents from a big Christmas stocking and threw two autographed No. 85 AFC North champion hats, jerseys, and footballs into the crowd.

Later in the second half, Johnson and Palmer hooked up to get into the Bengals record book on the same play. Johnson made a diving catch on the sideline for Palmer's 327th completion of the season and it gave Johnson 99 yards on the day and allowed him to break his 2003 club receiving yardage record with 1,259. He finished with nine catches for 117 yards, and had two drops that would have allowed him to tie his personal high of 11 catches he set last week. He now has 1,377 yards on the season.

The other Johnson, running back Rudi, kept churning to his club-record 1,454 yards with 47 yards on 10 first-half carries that gave him 1,399 for the season. He finished with 88 yards on 18 carries and has 1,440 going into the finale, becoming the first Bengals back with consecutive 1,400-yard seasons.

Bengals struggle early

With the 19th straight sellout waiting on some gifts from the high-powered Bengals offense, the defense kept the Bengals in a game the lowly Bills took command from the start.

It held the Bills to two red-zone field goals and set up Cincinnati's first touchdown with free safety Kevin Kaesviharn's interception that ignited a 13-play drive that resulted in a short-lived 7-6 lead in the first minute of the second quarter for the Bengals' NFL-leading 153rd point off a league-high 43 turnovers that includes the NFL-best 31 interceptions.

They also sacked Holcomb twice on the last three snaps of the first half with linebacker Brian Simmons and end Justin Smith splitting one and Smith getting the other one.

The interception was Holcomb's only mistake of a half he finished 16-of-21 passing for 196 yards, and promptly got the lead back for the Bills in the next drive. He used a throw over the middle to wide receiver Eric Moulds that became 19 yards because of a slew of missed tackles. Holcomb then threw a two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lee Evans beating cornerback Keiwan Ratliff to the corner to give Buffalo a 13-7 lead with 9:37 left in the first half.

Ratliff was in the game because Deltha O'Neal bruised his knee early, but he returned on the next snap after the Evans touchdown. Then, when he dumped McGahee on a screen pass to set up a third-and-24 from the Bills 26, O'Neal came up limping and he came out of the game even though he waved strong safety Ifeanyi Ohalete off the field.

Lewis said after the game O'Neal is fine.

The game started upside down with Holcomb connecting on a long ball and Palmer, the Bengals' new Pro Bowl quarterback, misfiring on a bomb.

After giving up a 65-yarder on the Bills' first snap of the game when Holcomb hit Lee Evans streaking past cornerback Tory James down the sideline.

But the other cornerback, the new Pro Bowler O'Neal, forced Evans to the middle of the field and Kaesviharn saved the touchdown at the Bengals 2.

The crowd held its breath as O'Neal writhed on the ground in pain for a few moments before he leaped up and jogged to the sidelines and then went into the locker room before he returned.

The Bengals then forced Holcomb to throw an incompletion out of the end zone before stuffing McGahee on second and third down to force Lindell's 21-yard field goal that made it 3-0 just 3:16 into the game. Defensive tackle Shaun Smith blew up the third-down play for no gain when he got a push, and made McGahee slip when he cut before he wanted. The Bengals did what they wanted in the running game in holding McGahee to 66 yards on 23 carries in holding a team to under 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight game.

On the Bengals' next series, Palmer had Johnson wide open behind the Bills secondary, but he put too much air under it and allowed safety Troy Vincent to come across and pick it off.

But Palmer recovered to find a rhythm in the first scoring drive in finishing the half 12-of-18 passing for 154 yards for a passer rating of 88.7 in his bid for an NFL-record 12th 100 rating game in a season.

Palmer hooked up with Johnson working toward the sideline one-on-one with cornerback Nate Clements for a 19-yard gain on third down, and then found him again for 12 more yards on third-and-three. That set up Tab Perry's two-yard touchdown run when he lined up as a running back and followed left tackle Levi Jones on a sweep as Jones buried McGee on a block to the ground.

That gave the Bengals a 7-6 lead in the first minute of the second quarter.

PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals went with six wide receivers in Saturday's Paul Brown Stadium finale against the Bills, dressing both rookie Chris Henry and Kelley Washington.

But they also had to put down one of their best blockers, tight end Reggie Kelly, with a wrist injury. In deference to the Bills' top special teams units, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis opted to introduce his special teams as a unit for the first time this season in pregame introductions. But their top tackler, linebacker Marcus Wilkins (hand), was inactive. Middle linebacker Nate Webster was active for the first time since injuring his knee Sept. 26, 2004.

Also inactive for the Bengals were their three injured regulars who missed last week's game in defensive tackle Bryan Robinson (foot), running back Chris Perry (ankle) and defensive lineman Carl Powell, as well as defensive tackle Matthias Askew and cornerback Greg Brooks.

Lewis benched Henry last week in Detroit a few days after Henry was arrested for possession of marijuana and Washington filled in with four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown in the 41-17 win.

Despite missing that one, Henry is still second among NFL rookie receivers with 395 yards (behind injured Braylon Edwards' 512) and five touchdowns (behind Heath Miller's six).

Webster hasn't appeared in a game since tearing the patella tendon in his kneecap in just his third start as a Bengal against the Ravens 15 months and two surgeries ago. Rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman returned to practice for the first time Thursday after stretching his neck against the Lions and went into the game as questionable.

Webster can also play special teams, where Wilkins leads the crew with 17 tackles, one ahead of rookie wide receiver Tab Perry. Lewis is shining his spotlight on the teams for a game the Bengals are facing their biggest challenge of the season in the kicking game.

The Bills have the AFC Pro Bowl punter in Brian Moorman, last year's AFC kick returner in Terrence McGee who returned three kicks for scores in '04 and has an , the top average drive start in the league, and the top cover kick team in the NFL.

The Bengals counter with Pro Bowl kicker Shayne Graham, Tab Perry's No. 8 ranking in kick returns, and the NFL's second best cover kick team.

Also lurking in the background is last year's loss at PBS against the Bills 370 days ago that was decided in large part by Bills offensive lineman Jason Peters' blocked punt that he fell on in the end zone.

The Bengals tried to finish off a 6-2 homestand for this season wearing their black jerseys and white pants. Lewis named his five new Pro Bowlers as his game captains: Graham, right tackle Willie Anderson, wide receiver Chad Johnson, quarterback Carson Palmer, and cornerback Deltha O'Neal.

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