CINCINNATI -- The San Diego Chargers didn't miss Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates. They didn't miss leading receivers Malcom Floyd or Patrick Crayton. Or No. 1 tailback Mike Tolbert. Or starting right guard Tyronne Green.
Because without Ochocinco and Owens demanding the ball and sucking the life out of the Cincinnati offense, the Bengals scored a season-high five touchdowns -- stunning the Chargers 34-20 to snuff San Diego's flickering postseason hopes.
Throwing to a no-name corps of receivers that did crazy stuff -- ran the correct routes, hung onto most catchable throws, even gave effort on passes in traffic -- Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer had a career-best 157.3 passer rating to go with 269 yards and a season-high four touchdowns.
"I think it has given [Palmer] new life," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, referring to the new-look receiving corps, "and that's fun to see."
Not so much for San Diego, whose loss means an AFC West title for Kansas City -- and no playoff spot for the Chargers.
"Words can't really describe how we feel right now," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. "Our season is done, even though we have one more game. It's probably the worst feeling you can have."
The Chargers suffered just their second December defeat in 22 games by struggling from the start. It began with two bad decisions by coach Norv Turner, who won the coin toss but chose to take the ball -- into a snowy headwind that gusted to 22 miles an hour -- and then, on San Diego's first play from its 20-yard line, dialed up a double reverse.
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San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson couldn't hang onto Tolbert's pitch -- and by the time the botched reverse was finished, the Chargers were lucky to have avoided a safety. They lost 19 yards, back to the 1, and moments later they were punting out of their end zone, into the wind.
The punt went 24 yards.
Five plays later Cincinnati scored on the first Palmer TD pass, a 3-yarder to tight end Jermaine Gresham. It was 7-0, and that's enough play-by-play for one game. From there, the Bengals grinded out a dominant victory that was a referendum on the futures not only of Ochocinco and Owens, but also Palmer and perhaps even Lewis.
Owens was placed on injured reserve earlier this week with a knee injury, ending his season with team-best totals for catches (72), yards (983) and touchdowns (nine). But the chemistry-killing Owens did what he does best, which is lose, and CBS Sports' Charley Casserly reported before the game that the Bengals wouldn't try to re-sign him after the season.
The Bengals have a $6 million option on Ochocinco, but with his production declining, injuries mounting and attitude waning -- Lewis called him "mopey" earlier this week -- Ochocinco figures to be too expensive to bring back. He was deactivated for Sunday's game with an ankle injury.
That left Palmer and Lewis to make do without their two most famous offensive players, and the results were breathtaking -- a varied passing game that didn't see Palmer forcing balls to his yammering diva receivers. Instead, Palmer did something he hasn't done in years: He took what the defense gave him. That meant 16 completions in 21 attempts, including rare touchdowns for rookies Gresham (his fourth) and Jordan Shipley (his third).
It also meant a career day for two receivers taken in the 2008 draft, Jerome Simpson (second round) and Andre Caldwell (third), who combined for 10 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns. Both were scored by Simpson, whose game started with a scare when his college teammate from Coastal Carolina, Tolbert, took an early shot to the head and was carried off the field on a stretcher, his head immobilized.
|San Diego Chargers|
|With their postseason lives on the line, the Chargers bumbled from the first play to the last. San Diego will have all offseason to ponder the mental mistakes, critical turnovers and red zone problems that decided its elimination game.|
|The Bengals played their most complete game of the season in all three phases. Even more encouraging than the win, all five touchdowns were scored by rookies or second-year players.|
|By Paul Dehner|
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Simpson was the first player on either team to check on Tolbert -- running to where Tolbert lay on the field. When Tolbert was carried off the field about 10 minutes later, Simpson jogged with him to the tunnel, barking positive thoughts at him. Simpson then returned to the field, and minutes later scored his first NFL touchdown on a 10-yard tap-dance near the end zone sideline.
From there Palmer poured it on, helping the Bengals open a 34-13 lead.
"I think that's as fine a game as Carson has ever played here," Lewis said.
For San Diego, the game unraveled on the final play of the third quarter for that very reason -- it was the Chargers' last play with the wind at their back, and Turner wanted Rivers to hurry up and throw one more pass.
Tentative, still trying to communicate with his backfield as the game clock ticked down to its final second of the quarter, Rivers squeezed off the snap on first down near midfield and threw his only interception of the game. Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga returned it 46 yards to the San Diego 10, and three plays later Palmer threw his TD pass to Shipley for a 20-10 lead.
"That [sequence] was the key to the game," Turner said.
The Chargers are left to figure out what went wrong in a season where they entered their 15th game ranked first in the NFL in total defense and second in the NFL in total offense -- yet won't be going to the playoffs.
"We were inconsistent," linebacker Shaun Phillips said of San Diego's 2010 season. "Inconsistency would sum it up."
And the Bengals are left to imagine the possibilities of playing an entire season -- say, in 2011 -- without Ochocinco and Owens lifting up the talent level while dragging down everything else.