NASHVILLE, Tenn. – With a game they needed to win on the line, the Cincinnati Bengals found a way to get the ball to their top receiver.

Carson Palmer tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson with 4:19 left that gave Cincinnati the lead for good, and the Bengals bounced back from their first loss of the season with a 31-23 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

The Titans (2-4) had won nine of the last 10 in this series between old AFC Central rivals, but Cincinnati (5-1) won for the first time since the 2001 season finale and finds itself alone atop the AFC North following Pittsburgh’s loss.

Palmer’s second touchdown pass put the Bengals up 24-20, and the Bengals ended the Titans’ hopes of winning consecutive games for the first time since the end of the 2003 season by forcing two turnovers in the final 3:09.

Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry each ran for a touchdown, and rookie linebacker Odell Thurman also returned an interception 30 yards for a score. Palmer was 27-of-33 for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Chad Johnson had eight receptions for 135 yards, a week after being held to 52 yards against Jacksonville and complaining he didn’t get the ball enough.

The Bengals proved they can play pretty clean football – the NFL’s most penalized team was flagged a season-low four times.

Tennessee failed to do the one thing coach Jeff Fisher preached about: protecting the football against the NFL’s best team at forcing turnovers.

The first came at the end of the third quarter with the Titans leading 17-10.

Tory James hit Titans receiver Tyrone Calico as a pass from Steve McNair arrived, and the ball bumped into the air to Thurman. He notched the Bengals’ 13th interception this season and returned it for a touchdown that tied the score at 17.

The Titans took a 20-17 on a 29-yard field goal by Rob Bironas with 4:54 left, leaving Palmer more than enough time.

Palmer needed only 35 seconds and two defensive pass interference calls on the Titans’ top draft pick, Adam “Pacman” Jones, to put the Bengals ahead to stay at 24-20.

Chad Johnson first drew a 34-yard penalty for interference, and Palmer went back to his favorite receiver in the left corner of the end zone. It was Johnson’s first TD against the Titans, but Johnson, who calls Jones a friend, celebrated only by shaking hands with some teammates.

The Titans still had plenty of time left, but Kevin Kaevsiharn picked off a pass intended for Drew Bennett at midfield with 3:09 left.

The defense got the ball back for McNair again, not that it did any good. McNair tossed a 6-yarder to Chris Brown only to see Tory James knock the ball out, pick it up and run it down to the Titans 1. Rudi Johnson scored on a 1-yard run with 2:26 left.

Tennessee led 10-7 at halftime because Cincinnati had trouble getting its offense going in the first half by going three-and-out, missing a field goal and turning the ball over on downs.

AP-ES-10-16-05 1640EDT

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