It's a wrap the Cincinnati Bengals' wideout told himself two minutes into the second quarter of Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers. Having already beaten cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes), Ochocinco accelerated and left the defender in fruitless pursuit, hitting fifth gear at the Chargers' 20-yard line and smoothly pulling in Carson Palmer's(notes) pass inside the 5.
Then Ochocinco crossed the goal line – and he had absolutely no idea what would happen next.
Suddenly, a player known for his creative touchdown celebrations was working without a teleprompter. Three days after the death of his friend and teammate, Chris Henry, Ochocinco felt more raw emotion than he'd felt at any point in his nine-year career, maybe ever. He wasn't quite sure how to proceed.
There were 68,889 fans at Qualcomm Stadium. Eighty-nine other players were immersed in a hard-fought game with significant playoff implications.
And Ochocinco, bless his heavy heart, was very much alone.
He dropped the football. He dropped to his left knee. He looked to the sky. He unbuckled his chinstrap and stared back up at the heavens.
He cried his eyes out. A lot of people watching got choked up, too.
"I couldn't hear [expletive] – at all, which is funny," Ochocinco said later. "You know how you're 'in the zone'? I was in the super zone. No rehearsal on that one. I just let it go, and there was nothing else."
There had been a moment of silence before the game to honor Henry, the 26-year-old receiver who died Thursday morning, a day after falling out of the back of a pickup truck following what police described as a "domestic situation" with his fiancée. This amounted to an encore. It wasn't completely quiet at Qualcomm after Ochocinco's 49-yard touchdown catch, but it was pretty close.
The Bengals had taken a two-point lead in a game they would ultimately lose, 27-24, on a 52-yard field goal by Nate Kaeding(notes) with three seconds remaining – but all of that was secondary. In that moment, even the fired-up Chargers fans seemed to connect with Ochocinco, the NFL's resident class clown, on a level they hadn't foreseen.
As Ochocinco knelt in the end zone, a phrase he and Henry made up about their uniform numbers running through his head ("Eight-five plus 15 will always be 100 ways to be great"), no one was sure what to do. Only three teammates approached him, and one, tackle Dennis Roland(notes), put a hand on the wideout's shoulder before walking away.
Finally Ochocinco rose, placed his right fist on his heart and slowly walked up the Bengals' sideline. He got a hug from receiver Jerome Simpson(notes) and a couple more congratulatory gestures. He sat on the bench, buried his face in a towel and let the tears flow once more.
And then, after a gentle request from coach Marvin Lewis, the player once known as Chad Johnson snapped out of it. On a day when halfback Cedric Benson(notes) admitted the team was "emotionally exhausted," neither the flamboyant wideout who was so close to Henry nor his teammates allowed grief to supersede competitive fire.
Football players are highly skilled at blocking out distractions, but on this day Ochocinco didn't even try. Just before he left the locker room for pregame introductions, the receiver whipped out his iPhone and scrolled to Henry's number. Then, repeating a mourning ritual he'd performed numerous times since learning of Henry's death, he called his fallen friend's phone and listened to his voicemail greeting.
"Look – he's still on my call log," Ochocinco told me after the game, the phone trembling in his right hand. "We talked Tuesday – that's how fresh it is. I keep calling over and over. I don't really know why. I just want to hear his voice …"
When it looked like the Bengals (9-5) had bottomed out on Sunday, Ochocinco and his teammates answered the call. Trailing 24-13 early in the fourth quarter to a team that hadn't lost in two months, Cincinnati battled back in inspirational fashion. Linebacker Keith Rivers(notes) intercepted a Philip Rivers(notes) pass with 14:02 remaining, and on the next play, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer drifted to his right and flipped a backward pass to Ochocinco.
The play looked like it would gain three yards at best, but Ochocinco (three catches, 79 yards) improvised. Pinned near the right sideline, he reversed field and looped around to the his left, rambling 26 yards diagonally through traffic until he was run out of bounds at the San Diego 7. Two plays later Palmer threw a short touchdown pass to Laveranues Coles(notes). On the ensuing 2-point conversion, he rumbled into the end zone on a quarterback draw to cut Cincy's deficit to 24-21.
The Bengals got the ball back at their own 5 with 7:20 remaining, and some more brilliance by Palmer, including his dramatic dash-and-dive to recover an Andre Caldwell(notes) fumble at the Chargers' 45 with two minutes remaining, set up Shayne Graham's(notes) game-tying 34-yard field goal with 54 seconds to go.
Some late magic by Rivers set up Kaeding's field goal and gave San Diego (11-3) the inside track for the AFC's No. 2 playoff seed and the first-round bye that goes with it. Minutes later, the Oakland Raiders' comeback victory over the Denver Broncos allowed the Chargers to clinch their fourth consecutive AFC West title.
The Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a home victory over the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday. They were visibly deflated in the locker room after the game, but their spunk and resilience had left an indelible impression.
"That's a good team, a complete team," Philip Rivers said of Cincinnati. "They're good all the way around, and they didn't quit."
They won't quit, either – not with leaders like Palmer and Ochocinco in the locker room.
Yes, I just called Ochocinco a leader. And no, I am not loco.
I realize the man has done some outlandish things. I know that as recently as the 2008 offseason, in an effort to force a trade out of Cincinnati, he was a divisive force who drove his coach and quarterback nuts. And I concede that, as someone who has a long history with Dennis Rodman, I may have a slightly irrational affection for public theater.
Given that Ochocinco legally changed his name to circumvent an NFL rule prohibiting him from wearing his nickname on the back of his jersey, he will always have a special place in my heart.
That's not the true measure of Ochocinco's impact, however. Not only is he one of the league's elite receivers, but the man also exudes genuine passion for his craft. For that reason he is perceived far differently in NFL circles than he is on the outside.
For what it's worth, Ochocinco's willingness to battle the establishment – and to fight for the right to celebrate on his terms, five-figure fines from the league be damned – is well-received by many of his peers.
"I think we need more guys like Chad," Cromartie said as he walked to his car outside Qualcomm. "He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. He's emotional, and he leaves it on the field.
"It's just entertainment. You're going out there and playing the same sport you've been playing since you were four or five years old. They try to take so much of the fun out of it, but I wish they wouldn't, because we're nothing but big kids. Chad's in touch with that, and that's what it's all about – having fun, enjoying life. Cause you never know when it's all gonna end."
Ochocinco remained emotional well after his touchdown.
(Christopher Hanewinckel/AP Photo)
Even as he grieved, Ochocinco had his moments of levity on Sunday. After cornerback Quentin Jammer(notes) stepped in front of a pass intended for the receiver and intercepted it midway through the third quarter, Ochocinco asked the defender why he'd correctly guessed that the ball would be thrown inside, and Jammer told him: "It was from your split."
"We had conversations like that all game long," Cromartie confessed. "If we can help each other out, even if we're on opposite sides, we will."
When Jammer went down with a knee injury early in the fourth quarter, Ochocinco held his hand and offered words of encouragement.
"We're all part of the same fraternity – the biggest fraternity ever," Cromartie said. "We lost a family member, and I know it was especially hard for [the Bengals] to be out there [Sunday]. When Chad scored, I knew he was gonna do something to honor Chris. I wish they would've let him wear his jersey."
Before the game, Ochocinco had expressed his intention to wear No. 15 in Henry's honor. Yet this time, under the threat of a league fine, Ochocinco elected not to fight City Hall. He felt that his attempted tribute was being perceived incorrectly – that some were depicting it as a shameless attempt to draw attention to himself – and didn't want it to become a sideshow. Instead, he said, "I went out and played – with an extra set of hands, an extra set of legs and an extra heart."
After his touchdown, as he stood up in the end zone and touched his heart with his right hand, Ochocinco showed us an unscripted, non-contrived side of himself that many people who witnessed it didn't know existed. He was vulnerable and he was valiant, and he was saying something about resilience in the face of misery that resonated on a visceral and universal level.
The grief won't go away anytime soon. As we learned on Sunday, neither will the Bengals.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Remember all the talk before the season about the NFC East being the toughest division in football? Maybe that wasn't just a bunch of hype. This was a big weekend for the Philadelphia Eagles (10-4), who defeated the San Francisco 49ers Sunday 27-13 to clinch a playoff spot, and the Dallas Cowboys (9-5), who remain in the division-title hunt. Philly has won five straight and is now only a game behind the Minnesota Vikings in the race for the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and the Eagles hold the tiebreaker. Meanwhile the Cowboys, who host Philly on the final Sunday of the season, aren't headed for the unseemly crash that appeared inevitable a week ago. In one of the season's most impressive outings by any team, Dallas went into New Orleans Saturday night and held on for a 24-17 victory over the Saints (13-1), meaning the '72 Dolphins now have only the Indianapolis Colts (14-0) to fear. The previous Sunday, after the Cowboys' 20-17 defeat to the Chargers, I asked veteran linebacker Keith Brooking(notes) if he sensed that the stigma of another shaky December had gotten into the heads of some of his teammates. "At the end of the day, I don't feel like it's a mental hurdle for us," he said. "We didn't play tight today. We were focused. We were emotional. I believe in the guys in this locker room. This is the closest team I've ever been on." It appears the 12th-year veteran had a decent read on his team. "We got it done last night in a huge way," Brooking texted Sunday night. "I found out a lot about our team." On Monday night the third NFC East playoff contender, the New York Giants (7-6), face the last-place Washington Redskins (4-9) in an attempt to keep pace. If New York wins it will be a game behind the Cowboys and Packers (9-5) and would own a tiebreaker on both. The Redskins, for what it's worth, can impact the playoff fortunes of the Giants and Cowboys in back-to-back home games before finishing at San Diego.
• When the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers pulled out that overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans in the NFL's regular-season opener, most of us believed there was a decent chance the two teams would meet again in January. It turns out both teams are hanging out on Hope Avenue, sticking out their respective thumbs and looking to hitch a ride into the AFC's insanely log-jammed playoff field. One thing is certain: The conference's other postseason contenders would prefer to avoid Pittsburgh and Tennessee come January. The odds are they'll get their wish – the Steelers and Titans are two of the conference's six 7-7 teams, all of which trail the Baltimore Ravens (8-6) and Denver Broncos (8-6) in the wild-card chase – but neither team is going down without a fight. On Sunday, Pittsburgh ended its five-game losing streak with a last-play, 37-36 victory over the Packers on Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace(notes) in the front left corner of the end zone. In delivering the just-inside-the-chalk catch that was every bit as close as Santonio Holmes'(notes) classic Super Bowl XLIII-winning reception, Roethlisberger went over 500 passing yards for the day (Matt Cassel(notes) has had less productive months) and made Sunday's showdown with the Ravens a lot sexier. As for the Titans, Tennessee won for the seventh time in eight games, beating Miami in overtime on Rob Bironas'(notes) 46-yard field goal. After blowing a 24-6 third-quarter lead, the Titans rose up in OT when safety Michael Griffin(notes) intercepted a Chad Henne(notes) pass at the Miami 45 on the Dolphins' third play. Quarterback Vince Young(notes), whose return to the starting lineup coincides with Tennessee's 7-1 run, threw three touchdown passes for the first time in his career. The Titans host San Diego on Friday night, and a lot of players on conference foes will be spending Christmas saying, "Go Chargers."
• I like to dump on Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini for things like reportedly subjecting his players to a three-and-a-half hour practice, in pads, last Thursday. But I'll give the man credit: Though likely to be fired after his first season in Cleveland, Mangini has his team competing hard down the stretch. The Browns (3-11) won their second consecutive game Sunday, outlasting the Chiefs 41-34. Mangini can thank K.C. counterpart Todd Haley for electing to kick to Joshua Cribbs(notes), who set an NFL record with his seventh career kickoff return for touchdown in the first quarter, sprinting 100 yards. Then, amazingly, the Chiefs kicked to him again late in the first half – and Cribbs went 103 yards untouched for his eight career TD. Owner Randy Lerner, who reportedly is set to commit $50 million over 10 years to woo Mike Holmgren as "football czar" (meaning he'll likely be paying Mangini not to coach over the balance of his deal), had best put aside some millions for Cribbs, who claims he was told he'd get a new deal a year ago and has since increased his value. Oh, and Lerner might want to save some scratch for fourth-year halfback Jerome Harrison(notes), whose rookie deal expires after this season (he'll likely be a restricted free agent, barring a CBA extension). Harrison ran for 286 yards on Sunday – two-hundred eighty-six! – the third-highest single-game total in NFL history, and only 10 shy of Adrian Peterson's record.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Congratulations to the Minnesota Vikings, who clinched their second consecutive NFC North title – now let the panic begin. Things might not be that dire after Minnesota's 26-7 thrashing by the 6-8 Carolina Panthers Sunday night, but an atrocious performance by the Vikes' offensive line makes the whole operation look scarily vulnerable. Naturally, much of the talk centered around quarterback Brett Favre's(notes) second brush with mortality in three weeks. And the news that Favre and coach Brad Childress got into what the quarterback called a "heated discussion" in the third quarter ratchets up the drama factor, given that the source of tension was the coach's desire to pull the player from a game Minnesota was winning at the time. Favre apparently overruled Coach Chilly; I wonder if he called up Packers coach Mike McCarthy afterward to vent. Now, instead of pressing the Saints for the No. 1 playoff seed, the Vikes (11-3) must worry about holding off the Eagles to secure a first-round bye, with games against the Bears and Giants remaining. So much for the notion of getting Favre some rest heading into the playoffs – especially now that we know such a move will likely provoke a blatant rebellion from the 40-year-old quarterback.
• As the Broncos prepared for a second-and-goal snap against the Raiders at Invesco Field Sunday, the game was halted for more than five minutes as police and security officials tried to find a fan in the south stands who was using a laser pointer to disrupt wideout Brandon Marshall(notes) and other players. Really, Denver – a dude with a little green light messing with the home team? That's about as insane as the Raiders using three quarterbacks, including newly signed J.P. Losman(notes), in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, and JaMarcus Russell(notes) leading Oakland on a last-minute touchdown drive to pull out a 20-19 victory. Have I mentioned that the Raiders (5-9) have long since surrendered any shot at the postseason while the Broncos (8-6) were in position to all but lock down one of the AFC's wild-card berths? If Denver doesn't get in – and barring a victory over the Eagles in Philly next Sunday, it doesn't look good for the Broncos – this will be the game that torments them. As for the Raiders, for all of their incompetence, they now own victories over three winning teams (Eagles, Bengals, Broncos) and a road triumph over the defending champion Steelers. I still think Tom Cable's offense is atrocious; keep in mind that six of the team's 16 offensive touchdowns have been in two-minute situations, when the quarterback is the primary play-caller. And I still think Al Davis is a sucker if, for the second consecutive year, he decides to keep Cable around based on a late run of impressive performances in meaningless games. On the other hand, maybe there's hope for Russell after all. Memo to whoever's in charge of the Raiders next year: If Russell plays, try giving him the Alex Smith treatment (shotgun, spread offense) and see if that helps.
• The New York Jets had the league's No. 1 statistical defense coming into Sunday's game against the Falcons and held a 7-3 lead when Atlanta took over at its own 27 with 4:27 to go. At that point New York hadn't allowed an opposing touchdown in 33 consecutive possessions. So what happened? In the Clash of Ryans, Falcons second-year quarterback Matt made first-year Jets coach Rex miserable, throwing a six-yard scoring pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) on fourth-and-goal to give the Falcons a comeback triumph. Realistically, the Jets (7-7) have to win next week to keep their playoff hopes alive – in Indy, against the Colts. The Dolphins (7-7) aren't in a great position, either, and they can partially blame wideout Greg Camarillo's(notes) mental meltdown for that. After Tennessee's Griffin returned his overtime interception to the Dolphins' 42, Camarillo was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty, which tacked on 15 yards and put the Titans in field-goal range. All of this was excellent news for the Patriots (9-5), who can officially clinch the AFC East by defeating Jacksonville at home on Sunday. New England beat the Bills 17-10, and although the Pats' offense was nearly non-existent in the fourth quarter, maligned wideout Randy Moss(notes) (five catches, 70 yards and a toe-tapping touchdown) had a nice bounce-back game. Last Sunday I lit up Moss; this week he gets his say: "You did y'all's talking, now let me do mine," Moss said as he stepped to the postgame podium. He then delivered the following statement before walking off without taking questions: "It's been really a tough couple weeks. You move on, that's the nature of the game. I'm happy that we got this victory. I appreciate all the support from my true fans, the players, the coaches, my family and loved ones. I've been in this league 12 years, man, and I've been through a lot. And these shoulders that I have on my body, you can put the earth on it. So, just to let you know, I bounce back. I appreciate it."
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. What Ricky and Marvetta Hooker were thinking 22 years ago when they named their daughter Destinee. If you haven't heard of Destinee Hooker, she's the amazing outside hitter whose exceptional performance Saturday night in the NCAA women's volleyball championship match nearly helped Texas topple the Penn State mini-dynasty before the Nittany Lions pulled out a five-set thriller for the their third consecutive title (and 102nd consecutive victory). Hooker, the Final Four's most outstanding player, is also an accomplished high jumper whose older sister, Marshevet, finished fifth in the 200-meter dash at the 2008 Olympics. It's strange to say that Marshevet got the boring name, but at least it doesn't suggest a future career in the world's oldest profession. To her credit, if Destinee indeed ends up becoming a "pro," it'll likely be on the beach-volleyball circuit. (And yes, I am just being silly here – I have nothing but admiration for the Hooker family and was truly captivated by Destinee's performance Saturday.)
2. The report Sunday from Fox's Jay Glazer that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, at last March's annual NFL owner meeting, asked former Broncos safety John Lynch(notes) to share everything he knows about ex-Denver coach Mike Shanahan – in the presence of current coach Jim Zorn. Given that it now appears quite possible that Shanahan will be hired to replace Zorn after this season, that's a rather incredible bit of chutzpah. If true, wouldn't that basically be the equivalent of asking one of your buddies to break down the pros and cons of an ex-girlfriend while your wife stands there smiling awkwardly – and then, a few months later, buying the woman in question a ring before actually filing for divorce? In the real world, that's the kind of thing that gets your SUV defaced by a nine-iron. In the NFL, it's merely due diligence.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Jay Feely(notes), do you believe in karma? Because after reading the ill-timed and condescending comments you made about Henry on Twitter on the day he died, it was very tempting for some of us to draw a connection between your untimely struggles in Sunday's three-point defeat to the Falcons. The Jets had three field goal attempts from inside 40 yards, all of which ended in failure: Holder Kellen Clemens(notes) dropped the snap on the first one, Feely shanked the second and the third was blocked after a high snap by James Dearth(notes). (Fittingly Feely, a staunch conservative with political aspirations, was wide right on his 38-yard attempt on the final play of the first half.) I'm sure Feely can tell us exactly what went wrong, because, it seems, the guy knows everything. That's how he sounded, at least, when he wrote of Henry, "You hope that these tragic circumstances will wake people to the reality that our actions have real consequences." Never mind that we still don't know the details surrounding Henry's death; Feely took the liberty of passing judgment. "Chris Henry seemed to have turned his life around," he wrote. "But, you can't live on the brink of destruction without inevitably falling off the ledge." Nice choice of terminology, given that the previous day Henry had fallen out of the back of a pickup truck. To his credit, Feely later backed off and apologized "for the poor wording and callousness." To that I say, on behalf of those who were offended, Shank you very much.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"See. You're not completely jaded and hardened. Yet."
– Text Sunday evening from Jim Rome, after I'd told him I got choked up watching Ochocinco's TD celebration.