Cincinnati stays alive for playoffs with win

CINCINNATI – The defense gives up nearly 600 yards, but gets three critical interceptions. The offense bogs down, only to light up when Chad Johnson gets free behind the coverage.

For the Cincinnati Bengals, it felt like the good, old days.

A 31-16 victory in New Orleans on Sunday got the defending AFC North champions back to .500 and kept them in the middle of the pack of playoff contenders, though there’s still ground to make up.

One wide-open game has them thinking it’s possible.

“We’re excited,” center Eric Ghiaciuc said yesterday. “Any team would like to be better than where they’re at, but we think we’re in a good position. We’re really fired up.

“It definitely does feel good to win, and it does definitely feel like you’ve gotten your second breath.”

The Bengals (5-5) knew that a loss in New Orleans would essentially scuttle their playoff chances. With tough games remaining at Denver and at Indianapolis, they couldn’t afford to fall any further behind.

Baltimore still leads the division by three games, but Cincinnati is in the pack of teams a couple of wins away from the wild-card leaders.

The most encouraging signs in New Orleans were the way the offense came up with big plays, and the way the defense made up for its shortcomings with turnovers. It’s how they played, and won, most of last season.

For the second straight game, Johnson got free beyond the secondary for long touchdown catches. He had six catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns, including scores of 41 and 60 yards.

A few weeks ago, Johnson complained about the Bengals failing to challenge defenses with the long pass. Most opponents had dropped their safeties to take it away, putting more than one defender on Johnson just to make sure.

He and quarterback Carson Palmer have been up to their old tricks in the last two games.

Johnson had a team-record 260 yards with a pair of long touchdowns in a 49-41 loss to San Diego, and kept it up against Saints defenders who let him run by them.

“We did what we wanted to do, regardless of what the coverage showed,” Johnson said.

Coach Marvin Lewis said the long passes in the last two games have been the result of the defenses’ problems and the Bengals’ resolve to get back to throwing deep.

“We’ve been trying to push the football, and we happened into a few things yesterday that just worked out,” Lewis said. “Carson moved, they dropped the coverage and Chad Johnson was able to get free.”

On a 60-yard score that snapped a 10-all tie in the fourth quarter, Palmer escaped the pocket and Johnson turned upfield, easily outrunning the defender for the game-turning play.

“We got lucky a couple of times, and we made a couple of nice plays at the same time,” Palmer said.

So did the defense, turning another miserable showing into a victory.

Cincinnati gave up a club-record 42 points in the second half of the loss to San Diego, and was trying to regain its bearings against one of the NFL’s top passers. Drew Brees threw for 510 yards Sunday, the sixth-highest total in NFL history, but had two of his passes intercepted in the end zone and another returned for a touchdown.

That’s how the Bengals won last season, making up for their defensive shortcomings with a league-leading 44 takeaways. The interceptions and fumble recoveries are down this year, and so is the defense.

The Saints rolled up 595 yards Sunday, averaging 7.7 per play. The performance dropped Cincinnati’s defense to last in the league in yards allowed.

“Defensively, it’s been a long time since we’ve created turnovers and whatnot,” linebacker Rashad Jeanty said. “You don’t want 500 yards going against you on defense. We’ve got to tighten up.”

Lewis knows the defense can’t continue to play that way.

“Yards are going to lead to points eventually,” Lewis said.