CINCINNATI – With Carson Palmer well off his game, a reliable running back and a trustworthy kicker kept the Bengals’ playoff momentum going.

Rudi Johnson ran for a season-high 169 yards, and Shayne Graham kicked a 37-yard field goal on the final play Sunday for a 23-20 victory over the Cleveland Browns that kept Cincinnati in firm control of the AFC North.

Cincinnati (10-3) reached double-digits in victories for the first time since 1988, its last Super Bowl season.

An offense that scored 117 points in the last three games with a high-tech, no-huddle offense showed it can also grind one out the old-fashioned way, a handy thing for cold playoff games.

With Palmer struggling to complete throws in a northerly wind, Johnson became the focal point. The burly running back carried a season-high 30 times and did most of the work in a 43-yard drive to Graham’s winning kick.

The Browns (4-9) had a chance to pull off an intrastate upset, but couldn’t stop Johnson or overcome two penalties in the closing minutes. Leigh Bodden was called for interference and illegal contact on Chad Johnson, who had only two catches for 22 yards overall.

Palmer’s performance was by far his worst of the season: 13-of-27 for 93 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He had season lows in completions, yards and passer rating (53.5), struggling to keep up with a raw rookie.

In only his second NFL start, rookie Charlie Frye kept the Browns in the game. He made only two mistakes: a pass intercepted by Deltha O’Neal, setting up Cincinnati’s second touchdown, and a throw that O’Neal dropped in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

O’Neal’s drop allowed the Browns to tie it at 20 on Phil Dawson’s 29-yard field goal with 4:19 to go.

Gusts from the north turned the stadium into a wind tunnel, made the goalposts gyrate and provided another concern for the Browns’ rookie quarterback. He handled it much better than the Bengals’ Heisman Trophy passer from Southern California.

Frye grew up in northern Ohio and was a third-round draft pick out of Akron, which is a short snowplow drive from Cleveland. So he’s dealt with a lot worse.

Wearing a black, white and gray glove on his passing hand to help him grip the ball, Frye was on the mark in a low-risk passing attack of short passes and rollouts to avoid the rush. He ran 3 yards on a rollout to score on the Browns’ first possession, raising the ball triumphantly with his right arm as he crossed the goal line.

His 2-yard touchdown pass to Steve Heiden put the Browns up 14-7 and sent notice this was going to be a typical Browns-Bengals game, unpredictable and up for grabs. He finished 16-of-24 for 138 yards with a touchdown and his first interception.

AP-ES-12-11-05 1624EST


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.