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Johnson's 4th-down grab helps Bengals escape Panthers

CINCINNATI (AP) -- The call came in. The gamble was on. The
Bengals were putting the game into the pleading hands of Chad Johnson.

The brash receiver had been begging for the chance.

Johnson turned a risky fourth-and-1 call into a diving 32-yard
catch Sunday, leading to a touchdown and a 17-14 victory over the
Carolina Panthers, who couldn't stop the Pro Bowl receiver on the
play that mattered most.

"That was the actual play call," Johnson said, noting that
offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski made him the first choice.
"Bratkowski -- I love you! Thank you! That was a great call.

"In my mind, I was going to come down with it."

He did, of course. Two plays later, the Bengals (4-2) finished a
length-of-the-field drive that gave them a welcomed win. They'd
lost their last two games and endured a bye week loaded with
questions about their tottering offense and their off-target
quarterback.

When they needed him most on Sunday, Carson Palmer finally
connected.

Wearing a glove on his passing hand, Palmer struggled with the
gusting, swirling wind until the fourth quarter. He went 8-of-9 for
93 yards in the go-ahead drive, culminating in his 1-yard throw to
T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

"In this stadium, the wind is different than most places we
play in," said Palmer, who was 23-of-39 overall for 240 yards.
"At times, it's nice and calm. Perfect. Then a huge gust comes in.
It can catch you off-guard."

The decision to throw on fourth-and-1 at the Panthers' 35 midway
through the fourth quarter caught everyone off guard.

"You just want to barrel out and get the first down, but I
guess the coaches felt that a little play action might work
there," guard Eric Steinbach said. "Once we heard the play
called, we were thinking, 'We might get them on this.' It was a
great call."

One very bad decision then sealed it.

Carolina (4-3) had won its last four games by playing very well
at the end -- three of the victories were by a field goal or less.
Jake Delhomme had the Panthers in position to pull off another one
on Sunday.

He completed passes of 18 and 23 yards to Steve Smith, helping
Carolina reach the 10-yard line. Facing third-and-goal, he saw
Keyshawn Johnson in the back of the end zone and decided to go for
the touchdown rather than throw it away and take a tying field
goal.

Safety Kevin Kaesviharn reacted and intercepted the floating
pass with 3:50 to play, essentially deciding it.

"I said, 'OK, it's a touchdown," Keyshawn Johnson said. "I
don't even know where the guy came from. Had I known he was going
to be there, I would've tackled him."

Delhomme didn't see Kaesviharn, either. When he let go of the
ball, Delhomme was ready to celebrate. Instead, he wound up
smacking his hands on the side of his helmet in disbelief.

"It's a play we've had the last couple of weeks," said
Delhomme, who was 20-of-34 for 238 yards and a pair of first-half
touchdowns. "When I let it go, I thought it was going to be a
touchdown. It was a bad throw on my part."

Both defenses slanted their coverages to stop two of the NFL's
elite receivers -- Chad Johnson and Smith, who were junior college
teammates seven years ago.

Chad Johnson's fourth-down catch gave him bragging rights over
Smith, who dominated their only previous NFL matchup. Smith
returned two punts for touchdowns and caught a pass for another
score during Carolina's 52-31 win in 2002.

Smith finished with eight catches for 126 yards, but Johnson got
the win along with his seven-catch, 61-yard performance. His only
disappointment: a gag order from coach Marvin Lewis now prevents
him from celebrating or gloating.

"I was asked to change by the head man," he said, clearly
disappointed. "So therefore, what you see from me is what he wants
-- just make your plays and go back to the huddle. So that's what
I'm going to do. Going to be no more talking, no nothing. Just go
out there and play, go home. If that's what it takes to make us a
better team, so be it."

Asked if that means no more touchdown celebrations, Johnson
nodded.

"Very lame, isn't it?" he said.

Game notes
Rudi Johnson ran for 101 yards, ending the Panthers' streak
of holding their last four opponents under 100 yards on the ground.
... DE Julius Peppers wasn't involved in the Panthers' two sacks,
ending his streak of five straight games with a sack. ...
Cincinnati had only 99 yards in the first half, when it failed to
get a first down on five of its six possessions. In the second
half, the Bengals had 243 yards and 15 first downs. ... Carolina
was 0-for-5 on third downs in the second half.