(AP) — Following the stunning death of receiver Chris Henry, the Cincinnati Bengals will take the field with heavy hearts – a situation all too familiar to them this season.
The Bengals face the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, three days after Henry died from injuries sustained from falling out of the back of a pickup truck during what police said was a domestic dispute with his fiancee.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said Henry died at 6:36 a.m. Thursday. He was 26.
Article continues below ...
“We knew him in a different way than his public persona,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said of the player who was suspended five times during his career. “He had worked through the troubles in his life and had finally seemingly reached the point where everything was going to blossom. And he was going to have the future we all wanted for him. It’s painful to us. We feel it in our hearts, and we will miss him.”
Police spokeswoman Rosalyn Harrington said homicide detectives have been assigned to the case but had no further information.
Henry was rushed to the hospital Wednesday after being found on a residential road. Police said the dispute began at a home about a half-mile away, and Henry jumped into the bed of the pickup truck as his fiancee was driving away from the residence.
“He was doing everything right,” teammate Chad Ochocinco said. “My grandma always says you never question the man upstairs on decisions he makes. Everyone makes mistakes, but I don’t see how Chris was supposed to go already, especially when he was on the right path. Other than that, he’s going to be missed.”
It is the second time death has stung the Bengals this year, as the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer died unexpectedly in October.
When the players received word Henry had died, quarterback Carson Palmer called them together in the locker room and said they should dedicate the game and rest of the season to Henry and Zimmer’s wife.
The teary Bengals held a somber practice Thursday, with Ochocinco wearing Henry’s white No. 15 practice jersey.
The mourning Bengals, who can lock up the AFC North title with a victory, take on a Chargers team that has won eight straight and is looking to secure its fourth straight postseason appearance.
Though it has LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles in the backfield, San Diego (10-3) has had trouble running the ball. Led by quarterback Philip Rivers, though, the Chargers are averaging 27.8 points per game and can clinch a postseason spot with a win over the Bengals (9-4).
San Diego can also secure first place in the AFC West with a Denver loss to Oakland, or with a victory and a Broncos tie. The Chargers will have a first-round bye if they beat the Bengals and Denver and New England lose or tie.
“The first goal that you have, obviously, is to win your division, which we still have some work to do to get that done,” Rivers said. “But you want to just get in. This game this weekend will allow that to happen if we go out and play well and win the game. … We win this game and we can be assured of playing past Jan. 3.”
Rivers passed for 272 yards and a touchdown in San Diego’s 20-17 victory at Dallas last Sunday.
Tomlinson extended his NFL record of consecutive 10-touchdown seasons to nine, but he had 50 yards on 21 carries and is averaging a career-worst 3.2 yards per rush. The Chargers are 31st in the NFL in rushing at 87.5 yards a game, although that is due in part to the team shifting its offensive focus to the passing game.
San Diego is tied for 15th in the league with 26.9 rushes per game. With a pass-first approach, the Chargers are averaging 266.8 passing yards – fifth in the NFL.
Six of the top seven passing teams in the league are in playoff position. Five are division leaders and two are undefeated.
The top four rushing teams, meanwhile, currently sit outside the playoff picture. Cincinnati ranks sixth in that category with 132.8 rushing yards a contest, and that has powered them to within a win of securing the division crown.
The Bengals’ commitment to the running game, however, has exposed a weakness over the past month: Being so intent on gaining yards on the ground puts them out of sync when they need to throw.
With their rushing attack contained, Palmer was held to 94 yards through the air in a 30-10 defeat to Minnesota last Sunday. The Bengals failed to win their third straight and lost for the second in four games.
“I don’t know if we’re going to change what we do,” Palmer said. “We’re on the top of our division and still can control our destiny. After one loss, there’s no reason to say, ‘All right, we’re going to become a passing football team,’ because we’re a running football team.”
Cincinnati was held to fewer than 100 yards passing for the second time in three games. It beat Cleveland 16-7 on Nov. 29 despite gaining 96 yards through the air.
Cincinnati reached 200 yards passing once in its last five games. Ochocinco is the only consistent downfield threat, drawing extra coverage as a result. Laveranues Coles has not been able to take advantage, catching 33 passes in 13 games.
Even though the Bengals had little trouble throwing the ball in their last matchup with the Chargers, it wasn’t enough. San Diego scored 42 points in the second half of a 49-41 win Nov. 12, 2006, as Rivers’ shovel pass into the end zone with 2:29 left completed one of the Chargers’ greatest comebacks.
Ochocinco set a team record with 260 yards and two long touchdowns, and Palmer passed for a career-best 440 yards and three TDs.
Rivers threw for 338 yards and three scores. Tomlinson had four TDs, rushed for 104 yards and caught six passes for 54 yards.
Tomlinson is having his worst season, but his ability to find the end zone has kept defenses honest in goal-line situations. His 136 career rushing TDs, all since 2001, match Emmitt Smith’s record for most in a single decade.
Smith had 136 of his NFL-record 164 scores from 1990-99.