Bengals look to secure division
CINCINNATI — A spray of white and yellow flowers rests on the shelf in Chris Henry’s locker. His name and No. 15 are still affixed to the wooden cubicle. The receiver’s tiger-striped helmet hangs from a hook on the side. T-shirts are arranged on a pole in the back.
It’s almost as though he hasn’t left.
The Cincinnati Bengals receiver was buried Tuesday in his native New Orleans, with grieving teammates and coaches along to say goodbye. It was the toughest day in a stretch of them for the Bengals (9-5), who flew back to Cincinnati and tried to move on.
Time to dry those tears and win that title.
The AFC North leaders have already wasted two chances to take it, losing back-to-back road games against Minnesota and San Diego. In between, they dealt with Henry’s death during what police describe as a domestic dispute in North Carolina.
Players spent their day off flying on a team charter to a funeral that left them spent.
“It was a weird day,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “Sad day. Emotional. Strange. Long. It was just a tough, draining day for a lot of our players.”
Coach Marvin Lewis eased up on them a bit this week to get them emotionally recharged for the Chiefs (3-11), who are trying to give themselves a few good memories at the end of a season that’s had its own drama.
Kansas City released controversial running back Larry Johnson on Nov. 9 as he was getting ready to come back from his latest suspension, this one after he used a gay slur on his Twitter account and belittled coach Todd Haley. The Bengals signed him as insurance in case Cedric Benson got hurt and cashed in quickly. With Benson sidelined by a strained hip, Johnson ran for 107 yards in a win over Cleveland.
He has been little more than a supporting player the last three games, carrying a total of nine times while Benson led the way. Johnson insisted any thought of revenge was dampened by his limited role.
“If I was going to be ’the guy’ like I was against Cleveland, then yeah, I’d be a little more pumped for this one,” Johnson said. “But right now, what’s going on with this team is bigger than me versus the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s basically us trying to put ourselves in a great position to get to the playoffs and hopefully get to the Super Bowl.”
Some raw feelings remain. Asked if he has patched things up with Haley, Johnson tersely said: “No.”
Haley didn’t want to delve into the subject too deeply, either.
“We were able to have a conversation,” Haley said. “I don’t think there was — at least not from my end and from what I understand — ill feelings. It just didn’t work out. But I think both sides really tried to make it work, and we’re pointed in the right direction.”
Since Johnson left, his backup has found his stride. Jamaal Charles, a third-round draft pick last year, has scored in each of the last six games and run for an average of 101 yards. He ran for a career-high 154 yards in a loss to Cleveland last Sunday.
“When Larry left, the running back position was wide open and we didn’t know what direction we were going,” quarterback Matt Cassel said. “There was some great competition there, some fierce competition, and slowly but surely Jamaal really stepped in and filled that role. He’s done a great job for us.”
Charles was one of Johnson’s friends and was looking forward to seeing him again. Charles, who turns 23 on Sunday, has a different motivation to look good.
“I looked up to L.J. and it’s going to be good to play against him,” Charles said. “I want to have a big game, just because it’s going to be my birthday Sunday.”
For Cincinnati, it’s a chance to clinch a division title that seemed all but assured two weeks ago. They could have won it with a victory in Minnesota or San Diego, or a loss by the Baltimore Ravens. They haven’t won, the Ravens haven’t lost, and the title is still in play with only two weeks to go.
The loss in San Diego cost them the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. They don’t want to lose any more ground.
“Every game is a must, really,” safety Chris Crocker said. “These past two weeks, we’ve had a chance every week. If we win this week, we’re all right. It’s crunch time here. You run out of games. You win or you go home at this point in the season. It would really be for nothing if you don’t go to the playoffs.”
That was the thought drawing them out of their grief.
“We made it a lot harder than it should be,” receiver Chad Ochocinco said. “We should have clinched the division.”