CINCINNATI – Carson Palmer found his touch and got the Bengals into the end zone. Given a chance to match him, Jake Delhomme came up one throw short.

Palmer finally mastered the wind and led a fourth-quarter drive Sunday that culminated in his 1-yard throw to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, giving Cincinnati to a 17-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

The Bengals (4-2) overcame three lackluster quarters to get their first win in three weeks. And they did it against a team that has a knack for making pivotal plays in the closing minutes.

The Panthers (4-3) had won four close games in a row, three of them by a field goal or less. Given a chance to tie or take the lead at the end, they let this one slip off Delhomme’s fingertips.

Delhomme, who threw for a career-high 365 yards in a win over Baltimore last week, drove the Panthers to the Cincinnati 10. On third-and-goal, he tried to loft the ball through the wind to Keyshawn Johnson at the back of the end zone.

Instead, the ball floated to safety Kevin Kaesviharn, whose interception essentially ended it with 3:50 to go. Delhomme smacked both hands on the sides of his helmet, incredulous that he’d made such a mistake.

Until the fourth quarter, Palmer knew the feeling.

Wearing a glove on his passing hand, Palmer struggled to get the ball to his receivers in a gusty wind that made the goal posts sway and his passes sail. He finally locked in on his targets in the decisive drive.

After Palmer was sacked just in front of his goal line to start the drive, he went 8-of-9 for 93 yards and made a huge gamble pay off.

Facing fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 35, Palmer threw long down the right sideline to Chad Johnson, who made a diving catch with cornerback Chris Gamble at his back for a 33-yard gain. Two plays later, the Bengals led 17-14.

That play gave Johnson bragging rights over former junior college teammate Steve Smith, who got the best of their only previous NFL matchup. Smith returned two punts for touchdowns and caught a pass for another during Carolina’s 52-31 win in 2002.

Smith finished with eight catches for 126 yards, but Johnson got the win along with his seven-catch, 61-yard performance.

Palmer was 23-of-39 for 240 yards. He had huge problems in the first half, when Cincinnati had the ball six times but failed to get a first down on all but one possession.

Palmer’s 16-yard pass to an uncovered Reggie Kelly tied it at 7 in the half, but even that involved a break. Cornerback Ken Lucas dropped a potential interception during the drive.

Delhomme was 20-of-34 for 238 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns. With Smith drawing a lot of attention, Delhomme threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kris Mangum and a 20-yarder to running back Nick Goings with 47 seconds left in the half.

AP-ES-10-22-06 1628EDT


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