The head coach was dry as he ran off the field after clinching a title – no celebratory sideline dousing. Players’ eyes were dry, too – all the tears had been wrung out.
In their finest moment, the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t act like champions. Maybe it was the ugly way they won. Maybe those tearful practices and wrenching eulogies had something to do with it as well.
Either way, they were in the playoffs.
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Carson Palmer‘s touchdown pass to Chad Ochocinco completed a 98-yard drive in the closing minutes Sunday, sending Cincinnati to a 17-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs that clinched the AFC North title five days after the Bengals buried teammate Chris Henry.
They wore the receiver’s No. 15 on their helmets and their hearts.
"I’m not jumping for joy or glee, just thinking about 15 once that clock hits zero," Ochocinco said. "That was everybody’s mindset, to go out and win this one for him."
The Bengals (10-5) reached the playoffs for only the second time in the past 19 years after dealing with Henry’s death. His wooden locker stall still has his shoulder pads resting on the top shelf, an assortment of shoes on the bottom rack and his helmet hanging from the side – almost as though he would show up at any moment and suit up.
Given the mood, the Chiefs (3-12) stayed close in a ragged game against a team finishing a very rough week. The Bengals lost in San Diego on Sunday, had a late flight home, then flew to New Orleans on Tuesday to attend Henry’s funeral. The receiver died from injuries suffered during what police describe as a domestic dispute in North Carolina last week.
"It was a long week," Palmer said. "We didn’t have an off day. We fly back from the coast, and the time change got us. Then we fly to New Orleans and don’t get back until like 7:30 p.m. That was a long, emotional day. We were drained and tired."
One good drive at the end was enough.
Cincinnati took over at its 2-yard line with 9:21 to go and put together its longest drive of the season. On the 14th play, Palmer threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Ochocinco, who ran to the stands and touched a poster of Henry, pausing for a brief prayer.
Fans wearing No. 15 decals chanted "Who Dey!" after Matt Cassel‘s final pass was intercepted and a burst of snow fell on a windy, raw afternoon. Palmer threw for a pair of touchdowns, and Cedric Benson ran for 133 yards in an offense that managed only two drives all day.
"To win this game, no matter how ugly, makes you closer as a team," defensive lineman Tank Johnson said, wearing a gray division champion baseball cap. "Winning makes everything feel better – a broken leg, a broken heart."
The Chiefs have one game left in their third straight season with four or fewer wins.
"I know we’re making progress," said Cassel, who was 22 of 37 for 180 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. "We’re fighting and continuing to get better. We had a chance. It just didn’t go our way at the end."
The Bengals played a pregame videoboard tribute to Henry. Offensive lineman Bobbie Williams pointed at the board, and Ochocinco raised one finger on one hand and all five on the other hand, signifying Henry’s No. 15.
Then, both teams played an opening half so dreadful that fans booed repeatedly. The Bengals looked like a distracted team – penalties and mistakes galore.
Cincinnati managed only 53 yards in the half, with its only points coming off a bizarre play. On a Kansas City punt attempt, the snap flew over Dustin Colquitt‘s head and rolled toward the goal line. Colquitt caught up with it and kicked it out of bounds at the 7.
Even then, the Bengals couldn’t get into the end zone because of a snafu. Palmer’s apparent 6-yard touchdown pass to Ochocinco was overturned after a review showed he had stepped out of the back of the end zone before the catch. Shayne Graham kicked a 29-yard field goal.
Palmer finished 17 of 25 for 139 yards with two touchdowns passing and an interception.
Even the intriguing subplot fizzled. The Chiefs released running back Larry Johnson on Nov. 9, and he signed with Cincinnati a week later for a reserve role. He was looking forward to running over his former team, and got a handful of chances that didn’t pan out – four carries for 11 yards.
NOTES: Playing on his 23rd birthday, Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles carried 24 times for 102 yards, his fourth 100-yard game this season. Charles won the starting job after Johnson was released. … Bengals rookie LB Rey Maualuga broke his left ankle late in the first quarter, a blow to one of the league’s stingiest defenses. … Benson set a team record with his sixth 100-yard game.