CINCINNATI - When the lingering smoke from a pre-game fireworks display finally lifted moments before kickoff, a new era dawned at Paul Brown Stadium yesterday.
The sorry, ramshackle Cincinnati Bengals had vacated the premises. In their place was the braggadocio of Chad Johnson, the big-play ability of Peter Warrick, the inspiration of Rudi Johnson and the resiliency of a gritty defense.
Meet the team that Marvin Lewis built. Introductions were in order after the Bengals terminated the Kansas City Chiefs' run at a perfect season with a hard-earned, 24-19 upset, handing Kansas City (9-1) its first loss.
"The Jungle is back," quarterback Jon Kitna said after the Bengals treated a record Paul Brown Stadium crowd of 64,923 to a fourth straight home victory. "They [the fans] were as much a part of the win as everything that happened on the field. They were huge for us."
Two long touchdowns by Warrick and the relentless running style of Rudi Johnson helped make it happen. At 5-5, the Bengals are off to their best 10-game start since they went 6-4 in their last playoff season in 1990. They endured a dreary decade through the 1990s, but yesterday's win, coupled with the Ravens' loss in Miami, gave the Bengals a share of the AFC North lead with Baltimore.
It was a victory that underscored the turnaround Lewis has achieved in his first season as coach. What it meant to the former defensive coordinator of the Ravens was a validation of sorts.
"Well, it gives us legitimacy for everything," he said. "The hard work, everything that is important. We have played now against three division leaders, and we have beaten them. That is important - that we can play football like the rest of them.
"From the time we started, we said we were going to bring the NFL back here. And that was NFL football out there today. It was an NFL atmosphere. It was fun."
It also was a reprieve for Chad Johnson, the talented Bengals receiver who had guaranteed a victory for Cincinnati last week, much to the consternation of his teammates. Johnson was criticized by teammate Willie Anderson during the week, and his comments essentially split the locker room in half.
"All the young people were on my side," Johnson said. "All the vets, five years and up, didn't like it."
Johnson also heard it from various Chiefs, including receiver Johnnie Morton and safety Jerome Woods. He had tried to make amends in pre-game warm-ups.
"I apologized to [Chiefs coach] Dick Vermeil before the game to let him know it was strictly for the team, to get us fired up," Johnson said. "He already knew. And they knew where I was coming from. It didn't sit well with certain people."
Johnson backed up his words with seven catches for 74 yards. He left the field in the third quarter with cramps to take intravenous fluids, then returned to finish the game.
But the Bengals' biggest offensive plays were delivered by Warrick and the other Johnsons on the team - Jeremi and Rudi.
Jeremi Johnson gave the Bengals a 10-6 lead in the third quarter with a nifty, 13-yard catch-and-run to the pylon. That was after Kansas City had squandered terrific field position throughout a 3-3 first half.
Then it was Warrick's turn. He scored touchdowns of 68 and 77 yards in the fourth quarter on a punt return and a reception. The punt return made it 17-6 and the catch 24-12, thwarting a Kansas City comeback.
Chiefs quarterback Trent Green threw for 313 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but each time the Bengals answered with a shot of their own.
Warrick beat Kansas City's best cornerback, Eric Warfield, deep down the middle of the field for his touchdown catch. Warfield missed a tackle at the 35, when Warrick spun loose of his grasp.
Green got the Chiefs within five points on a scramble and 3-yard scoring pass to Jason Dunn with 3:19 to play. And when the Chiefs were able to bring down Brandon Bennett at the Cincinnati 11 on the ensuing kickoff, the Bengals looked to be in trouble.
But as he had done all day, Rudi Johnson punched holes in the Chiefs' defense. He broke a huge 54-yard run on the second play to reach the Chiefs' 29. That allowed the Bengals to run out the clock. For the afternoon, Johnson had 165 yards rushing on 22 carries.
A new era?
"A lot of people say the guarantee was stupid because it's the same old Bengals," Chad Johnson said. "That's what I was trying to get people to see, that it's not the same old Bengals. Marvin has flipped this whole thing around. People can be happy to put on a Bengal shirt now."