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Bengals focusing on AFC North title chase after mourning Henry

CINCINNATI -- A spray of white and yellow flowers rests on the shelf in Chris Henry's locker. His name and jersey No. 15 are still affixed to the wooden cubicle. His 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 wide 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 after after the tragedy.

Time to dry those tears and win that title.

The AFC North leaders already have wasted two chances to take it, losing back-to-back road games against the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers. 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," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. "Sad day. Emotional. Strange. Long. It was just a tough, draining day for a lot of our players."

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis eased up on them a bit this week to get them emotionally recharged for Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs (3-11), who are trying to give themselves a few good memories at the end of their own dramatic season.

Kansas City released controversial running back Larry Johnson on Nov. 9 as he was preparing 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 was hurt and cashed in quickly. With Benson sidelined by a strained hip, Johnson ran for 107 yards during a victory over the Cleveland Browns.

Johnson has been little more than a supporting player in Cincinnati's last three games, carrying a total of nine times while Benson led the way. Johnson insisted that any thought of revenge against the Chiefs 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 Kansas City, 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 the Browns last Sunday.

"When Larry left, the running back position was wide open, and we didn't know what direction we were going," Chiefs 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 the Bengals 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," wide receiver Chad Ochocinco said. "We should have clinched the division."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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