There was much to take from Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. The Chargers were ousted from the playoffs. Fans left the parking lot in their Jettas saying, "Where the heck was that all season?" Perhaps most importantly, the Bengals learned that Carson Palmer doesn't need high-profile diva wideouts to succeed.
Now, this is not to say that Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco aren't good players. But their absence in a 34-20 victory, both due to injury, served Palmer and the passing game just fine. The franchise quarterback -- who has been anything but -- was making plays all over the field against a San Diego team that was allegedly in playoff desperation mode, going 16-21 for 269 yards. That's over 12 yards every time the ball left his hand. Four of his throws went for scores. Not bad.
First he squeezed the ball into impossibly tight quarters to rookie Jermaine Gresham for the game's first touchdown Later, he froze Quentin Jammer, staring at Jordan Shipley running a post before hitting Jerome Simpson in the corner of the end zone … that was touchdown No. 2. But the bearded wonder was just getting started, while Owens and Ochocinco watched.
There would be two more touchdown passes. No sacks taken. And maybe most relevant to Cincinnati's lackluster season, Palmer led a third-down offense that converted eight of 14 times. Something strange was going on in Sam Wyche-ville.
The weirdness started with an offensive unit that came out of hibernation without its -- in theory -- two best skill players. But that's just the thing with Owens and Ochocinco. Each opens his mouth a lot, and most of the time it's when they're calling for the ball. Most would say that's just part of being a good wide receiver. Hey, it's hard to argue with Owens' production this season before he got hurt (72 receptions, 983 yards and nine touchdowns.) Yet having two receivers who constantly need to be pleased puts undue strain on a quarterback who's got a whole city's hopes and the responsibility of a $100-million contract on his shoulders.
This is not to blame the Bengals' misfortunes or Palmer's inconsistent play on the two stars of one of VH1's most popular reality shows. Instead, let's just say there is some circumstantial evidence that those guys aren't helping matters. Yes, they've combined for 139 catches, but that hasn't translated into wins, nor has Cincinnati's struggles been related to having a great offense with a bad defense. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's unit has been just as inconsistent as the defense.
In fact, it was a play to Simpson that ensured the Bolts would be watching "Caddyshack" instead of playing football in mid-January, while serving as a microcosm for why the Bengals might not need Owens and Ochocinco. With a 20-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter, the offense, at the very least, needed to burn some clock and give the defense some rest.
On third-and-7, Palmer called a quick snap count from center Kyle Cook while the Chargers lethargically came out of their huddle. Before Antoine Cason could even set up in man coverage, Simpson sprinted by him. Palmer put the ball on the money 40 yards downfield and Simpson coasted in for a 59-yard touchdown. The Chargers would not recover. T.O. and Ochocinco might not either.
Simpson put up six catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns despite entering Sunday with maybe the least amount of cache of any receiver in the league. In nearly three full seasons, the 2008 second-round pick had only produced three catches … total. But with Owens and Ochocinco out, coach Marvin Lewis and his staff finally were able to see if they have anything in Simpson. Ditto Gresham, who will surely see a safety on him as long as Owens isn't there to command double teams or bracket coverage -- but that's a good thing. If the coaching staff wants to know if Gresham can be an Antonio Gates or Jason Witten, they have to see him beat safeties, not linebackers.
Speaking of the coaches, Bratkowski might have benefited the most. There has been some thought that he might feel pressure to get Owens and Ochocinco involved in games early, thus altering his play-calling. But without them, the attack flourished against the Chargers, and now has the potential to morph into a ball-control offense led by Cedric Benson, Gresham and a lot of underneath stuff to Shipley.
All of those factors might lead Mike Brown's club to move on from the T.Ocho show in 2011. Owens is 37, on a one-year deal, and coming off a torn meniscus. Brown would have to pay Ochocinco $3.5 million if he chooses to cut ties, but that's a big savings from the $6 million he'd have to fork over to keep No. 85.
Without either veteran receiver, Palmer can play his game with nary a concern about feeding anyone's ego, I.E., spread the ball around, make good decisions and not force passes to anyone. While he posted huge numbers with Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh a few years ago, those players were in their mid-20s then, not their mid-30s.
Thus, Sunday's demolition of the Chargers and the league's top defense might have provided a blueprint for 2011, as well as a little less drama around Paul Brown Stadium.
News and notes
» The Panthers finally made their fans happy, securing the first-overall pick in April's draft, which also means having the No. 1 slot in the second round. Unfortunately, Carolina dealt that choice to New England last year.
With the change in the draft schedule from earlier this year, such as moving the second round to Day 2, that 33rd choice is pure gold. Clubs have the whole night after Day 1 to think about the can't-miss player they have to have, and make some pretty tasty offers. Look for Bill Belichick to do more stockpiling.
» Jamaal Charles is averaging 6.4 yards per attempt on 216 carries. How many times in NFL history has a guy averaged that many yards per rush with 200-plus carries?
» You want a reason the Dolphins were playing for no stakes last week? The offense came into Week 16 as the worst vertical passing unit in the NFL. On passes that traveled 20-plus yards past the line of scrimmage, Miami quarterbacks -- mostly Chad Henne -- were a sterling nine of 41 with a passer rating of 28.4. Henne's two completions of 20 or more yards against the Lions came when the target caught a shorter pass and picked up yards after the catch.
New York made it all the way to the championship game that season, only to be distracted by gambling accusations surrounding quarterback Frank Filchock and fullback Merle Hapes. The Giants lost to the Bears, 24-14, and both players were suspended by commissioner Bert Bell. They would only play one more game in the NFL between them.
» Got into a little disagreement over Facebook with a Cowboys fan who thinks Miles Austin and Al Gore invented the Internet. When I suggested that Austin is a good player who's regressed this season -- dropping passes, suffering lapses in concentration, slipping on routes -- you'd have thought I poured sour milk in this guy's Count Chocula cereal. Fact is, Austin's lack of body control caused Jon Kitna's first pick six against the Cardinals on Christmas.
It's the fantasy versus reality debate that my colleague Bucky Brooks mentions often. Austin is a great fantasy guy, not a complete player yet.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.