Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer stood his ground in the pocket yesterday afternoon, staring across the line of scrimmage at the Washington Redskins' vaunted defense. He didn't blink.
Palmer, a second-year player who didn't take a snap last year, looked like a seasoned veteran as he picked apart the NFL's top-ranked unit, connecting early and often with wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The trio's performance -- particularly in the first half -- sparked the Bengals, who earned a 17-10 victory at FedEx Field in a game Cincinnati had to win to stay in the mix for a playoff berth.
The afternoon didn't get off to a promising start for Palmer, whose first pass was caught by Redskins safety Sean Taylor. But Palmer bounced back from an 0-for-3 start to connect on 13 of his next 14 passes, a stretch in which the Bengals took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter on a one-yard pass to tight end Tony Stewart.
"It was huge," Palmer said of taking an early lead and silencing the Washington fans. "It's tough place to play. Their fans are aggressive. They get after it. They are loud and it makes it difficult on offense. Any time you come out and put points up, and they start booing their offense, they get mad, and they are not quite as loud -- it makes it easier to run your stuff."
Palmer completed 61 percent of his passes (24 of 39) for 217 yards -- 165 in the first half -- a touchdown and two interceptions. Johnson had six receptions for 89 yards, and Houshmandzadeh caught seven passes for 59 yards.
Houshmandzadeh said the victory was as critical to the Bengals' season as it was to Palmer's development. The 24-year-old quarterback came to Washington ranked 30th in the league in passer rating (66.3), but he and the Bengals departed with their first road win, a two-game winning streak and loads of confidence heading into next week's home game against AFC North-leading Pittsburgh.
If the Bengals are going to make a surge, Houshmandzadeh and Johnson said it will be Palmer who must lead the way.
"In the huddle, we'll be in there talking -- and he's a quiet guy -- but he'll take charge now," Houshmandzadeh said. "He'll say stuff like, 'Ya'll shut up now, listen up. We get a first down and this game is over.' More and more he's taking charge as the season goes on. The first time he did it, it was kind of shocking because he's so quiet, but it's not surprising anymore."
So it wasn't surprising to them that Palmer, who last year was an understudy to Jon Kitna, rebounded from getting his first throw intercepted. Or that he seemed undaunted facing a defense that had been yielding a league-low 261 yards of total offense per game.
Palmer's first pass attempt was intended for Johnson, who quickly found Palmer on the sideline and offered him advice: "I just told him it's going to be all right, that we were going to be straight. It wasn't nothing."
"Nothing is going to rattle Carson," Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said. "Carson has been playing QB for a long time, and he knows what comes with that position. We got to make sure the ball doesn't get intercepted. We didn't want to open the game that way. But we were going to take our shots today."
Palmer said: "It was just the first play of the game. I just had to let that roll off my shoulder."
There was a sense in the locker room that new life had been breathed into their season. The Bengals improved to 4-5, and have reason to believe they can make a run at the playoffs.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs; yeah we lost five of our first seven games," Houshmandzadeh said. "But there are [seven] games left. We're not out of it. Pittsburgh is on top of the division with one loss, but there are other ways to get into the playoffs."
Lewis added: "This was a victory we needed to get our guys to believe that we can do things on offense. We can throw and catch the football and we can run the football. We just have to execute and do it. And today we did that."