On Separation Sunday, Bengals, Panthers rise up

ON THE NFL

Gameday

December 05, 2005|By KEN MURRAY

Separation Sunday dawned yesterday in the NFL with the promise of a palace revolt in the AFC North and a Carolina coup in the NFC South.

When it ended, the Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers were celebrating a coming-out party, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons were assuming a fallback position.

In other words, Separation Sunday lived up to its promise.

On a day when the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts and the idle Seattle Seahawks clinched playoff berths, the Bengals made the biggest strike of Week 13. Their 38-31 victory in Pittsburgh over the Steelers ended a 15-year drought of winning teams for Cincinnati's forlorn franchise.

A new order has come to the AFC North. At 9-3, the Bengals hold a two-game lead over the Steelers for the division title with four games to go. Because Cincinnati doesn't play another winning team until Week 17, it's a lead that should hold.

At 7-5, the Steelers are nursing a three-game losing streak and diminished hope for a playoff spot. The last thing they wanted yesterday was a shootout with Carson Palmer's Bengals. Even though a battered Ben Roethlisberger passed for 386 yards, it had the predictable outcome: a game of catch-up they couldn't win.

Finally, the Bengals have a quality win. If the Denver Broncos, 9-3 after a loss in Kansas City, slip again down the stretch, the Bengals might even wind up with a bye in the first round.

Under coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have a deep reserve of skill players and playmakers. There were offensive heroes all around in Pittsburgh. Palmer threw for 227 yards and three touchdowns in a no-huddle offense that emulates the Colts' version. T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught two touchdown passes -- one a spectacular grab in the end zone on a deep ball -- and Rudi Johnson ran for two more.

But maybe the biggest play was delivered by a rookie, Tab Perry, who returned a kickoff 94 yards to the Pittsburgh 3 to help break a 24-24 tie and put the Bengals in front to stay.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have tried to recapture their Super Bowl formula of stout defense and grinding run game. Until this week, the run game was conspicuously absent.

But DeShaun Foster, a former second-round pick with a reputation for fumbling and getting hurt, delivered the running game in Carolina's 24-6 wipeout of the Falcons. He rushed for 131 yards, the first 100-yard rush game of the Panthers' season. Foster scored one touchdown rushing, another receiving, and finished with 180 scrimmage yards.

More impressively, the Panthers, who had lost nine of their last 10 games with Atlanta, broke a five-game losing streak against their nemesis Michael Vick. The reward was a two-game lead over the Falcons in the South and a chance next week to knock back the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well.

If their defense and running game hold up, the Panthers have a reasonable chance to reach the Super Bowl out of the NFC.

These were some of yesterday's other winners and losers.

Winners

The Colts (12-0) took another stride toward a perfect season by thrashing the Tennessee Titans, 35-3. The verdict required only 17 throws from Peyton Manning (three went for touchdowns). They visit Jacksonville next week with a chance to clinch the AFC South against the second-place Jaguars.

Indianapolis' bonus was Denver's loss to the Chiefs, which gave the Colts a three-game lead for home-field advantage in the AFC. Staying indoors is huge for the Colts.

The New York Giants took over first place in the NFC East by whipping the Dallas Cowboys, 17-10. In the process, they exposed quarterback Drew Bledsoe (15-for-39, two interceptions, two lost fumbles, four sacks) as a bad play waiting to happen.

The Chiefs smacked the Broncos, 31-27, with the heavy end of their running game. That would be Larry Johnson, who punched out 90 of his 140 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. Stopping Johnson is going to be problematic even for the row of playoff hopefuls the Chiefs face down the stretch - the Cowboys, Giants, San Diego Chargers and Bengals.

The Chicago Bears are just a Seattle Seahawks loss away from the first seed in the NFC. That loss could come tonight in Philadelphia, where the Seahawks play the Eagles. Chicago is 9-3 overall, but matches Seattle at 8-1 in conference play.

Hard to imagine a team with so little offense and so much defense getting to the Super Bowl, but it's been known to happen before.

The Seahawks clinched the sorry NFC West without breaking a sweat when the St. Louis Rams lost to the Washington Redskins, 24-9.

Losers

The Buffalo Bills were still in striking distance of the New England Patriots in the toddling AFC East, but a fourth-quarter collapse and 24-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins effectively ended their shot.

The Steelers have some serious ground to make up on either the Chargers or Chiefs if they're going to get into the postseason as a wild-card. The injury report on Roethlisberger won't help.

The Cowboys are in dire straits. After a home game with the Chiefs, they visit the Redskins and Panthers. It will be a tall order.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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