Bengals offense may slowly be returning to form

CINCINNATI -- Just before Chad Johnson decided his 20 minutes of primping was sufficient to prepare him for entertaining the mostly fawning media contingent here on Sunday evening, the Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver reached under his designer sweatshirt and spritzed himself with a couple shots of cologne.

An appropriate move, given that Johnson helped remove some of the stigma from a Bengals offense that certainly hadn't smelled anything like the high-octane unit of a year ago.

The underarm maneuver by Johnson still didn't totally expunge the fact that the Bengals have been relatively underwhelming. They have played through injuries in the early portion of the campaign and were minus two starting offensive linemen in Sunday's 17-14 victory that snapped the Carolina Panthers' four-game winning streak. The outcome of this game hinged largely on third-down plays -- the ones the Panthers failed to convert, and the several big plays authored by Cincinnati. And it was Johnson's huge catch on a fourth-and-1 which allowed the formerly floundering Bengals to halt a two-game losing streak and move to 4-2.

"It was [beyond] ballsy," Johnson said of the fourth-and-1 play call that Johnson turned into a diving 32-yard grab. "That was some Scarface-type [stuff] there."

The so-called Scarface-type call by Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski may have enabled a Cincinnati offense that has sputtered through maddening stretches of inconsistency this season -- including some sluggish possessions on Sunday -- to regain some face.

It came with the Bengals trailing 14-10 and the ball at the Carolina 35-yard line, with 9:13 remaining in the back-and-forth game. Eschewing a more traditional call, like an off-tackle run by tailback Rudi Johnson, who blasted his way for 101 yards on 26 carries, Bratkowski and head coach Marvin Lewis elected to go with a vertical throw.

Johnson, who entered the game with only one reception for more than 20 yards this season, ran a classic "nine" route and made a superb adjustment on a pass being carried toward the sideline by a gusting wind, beating Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble by laying out for the ball. It was Johnson's second-longest reception of the season, topped only by the 51-yarder he managed in last Sunday's loss at Tampa Bay. None of his five other receptions on Sunday netted more than 12 yards, and that 12-yard catch moved the chains on a third-and-7 play in the third quarter.

For the year, Johnson has 29 catches, but for an average of just 12.9 yards (nearly two yards below his career average entering the season) and only one touchdown. Nearly half his receptions this year (14) have been for eight yards or less. But when the Bengals needed their loquacious wideout to come up big on Sunday, he did.

Cincinnati got the single coverage on the outside that the coaches anticipated, quarterback Carson Palmer put the ball where only Johnson had a shot at it, and Johnson did the rest.

"We wanted to get a vertical throw and we got it," Lewis said. "Fourth-and-1. Sometimes, you know things that people are going to do. And we've got to attack. That's been our word, all the time."

If you're looking for words of insight, the Cincinnati locker room is the last place you usually want to be, and Sunday was no exception. There is a collective chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that emanates from the boss on down. But there is no denying that, for all their combativeness in challenging any question that even suggests the Bengals were less than dazzling, this is a talented bunch.

And the fourth-down catch by Johnson could be, in the big picture, the critical play Cincinnati needed to get rolling again.

Even if Palmer and Johnson weren't quite ready to concede that.

Said Palmer, who completed 23 of 39 passes for 240 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 94.0: "I don't think [we played great] as an offense, but we played well enough to win."

"It's just one play in one game," said Johnson, who had 14 passes directed toward him on Sunday. "It's a start, that's all. What we need to do now is keep challenging people. Keep having faith in our receivers. Keep trusting that we will make plays. Keep building confidence."

Those words were meant more, of course, for the Cincinnati offensive coaching staff than the media.

An offensive line that had been anything but trustworthy in the first five games certainly gained some confidence Sunday afternoon. The Bengals have been forced to shuffle bodies because of injuries and have allowed Palmer to be sacked 17 times (after giving up only 19 sacks for the entire 2005 season); they started their fifth different combination in six outings with rookie Andrew Whitworth getting his first start at left tackle in place of the ailing Levi Jones. And the line acquitted itself well.

There was concern that Whitworth, a second-round choice from LSU who had started two games at left guard, might have problems with Carolina right end Mike Rucker. And the Bengals had to wonder, too, if venerable right tackle Willie Anderson would contain Panthers left end Julius Peppers, who came into the game with a league-high eight sacks. The final tally: The Carolina end tandem totaled five tackles and zero sacks. Despite being hit hard about a half-dozen times, Palmer suffered only two sacks.

"Give them credit," said Panthers middle linebacker Chris Draft. "As the game wore on, their protection got better. They started moving the ball, they made third downs, and they got some big plays."

Over the final three quarters, the Panthers converted six of 13 third downs, including four of 10 in the second half. The Bengals' first touchdown, a 16-yard pass to tight end Reggie Kelly, came on a third-and-7 play. In the second half, Cincinnati rang up 242 yards and 15 first downs. Defensively, after intermission the Bengals surrendered only six first downs, 99 yards and no points. On six second-half possessions, Carolina punted four times, threw an interception and had the clock run out.

The interception, by Bengals reserve safety Kevin Kaesviharn in the back of the end zone, came on one of several third-down plays that swung the outcome. On the play, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme tried to hit wideout Keyshawn Johnson crossing the deepest part of the end zone, but Delhomme didn't allow enough time for the route to develop and threw too quickly. It was the first time in his eight-year NFL career that Delhomme had thrown an interception on a play that originated from the opponent's 10-yard line or closer.

"Third down, it's the money down, right?" said Kaesviharn of his 12th career pickoff and third this season. "It's what separates the good teams from just, you know, all the other teams."

But what separated the Bengals from another difficult defeat, and the team's first three-game losing streak since early in 2004, was Johnson's fourth-down catch.

"It's the kind of play I'm supposed to be counted on to make," Johnson said. "And if they keep giving me the chances, well, I'll keep making them."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.