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 CINCINNATI (AP) -Kenny Watson was headed for the weight room after practice Wednesday when quarterback Carson Palmer called him over for yet another congratulatory knuckle tap and more kind words about his breakthrough performance.
The unheralded running back has brought a good feeling to the Cincinnati Bengals locker room.
Watson ran for a career-high 130 yards and scored three touchdowns Sunday in a 38-31 victory over the New York Jets that at least temporarily saved the Bengals' season. Cincinnati (2-4) is still last in the AFC North, but could move to within a game of first place by beating Pittsburgh (4-2) on Sunday.
Give Watson much of the credit.
``I'm not surprised at all,'' said Palmer, who lobbied for the Bengals to keep him in the offseason. ``Kenny's a great back. It's so great to see him do what he's doing.
``I'm so happy for him. I told him after the game he did a great job and all, but I'm just happy to see him doing what he's doing. I'm happy to see him happy.''
The Bengals were happy to see anyone do what Watson did against the Jets.
Cincinnati's running game has struggled for most of the season, putting pressure on Palmer to throw. The lack of a dependable ground game was a big factor in the Bengals' struggle on third down - they went 1-of-18 over a two-game span.
An injury-depleted offensive line had problems opening holes, and running back Rudi Johnson has missed most of the last three games with a strained hamstring. The line had all five starters back for the first time against the Jets, and Watson had the benefit of running behind it.
``It was big for us to come out and dominate the line of scrimmage like we did,'' Watson said. ``We're always trying to come up with a balanced offense. That hasn't worked out for us the last few weeks.''
It helped that the Bengals had bookend tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson for the entire game. Anderson threw the block that opened the way for Watson's first touchdown.
``It's a big difference having his leadership out there,'' Watson said. ``You know he's banged up, and you've got to go hard for him.''
Anderson most likely will sit out Sunday against Pittsburgh. He aggravated a sore knee during the game against New York and was listed Wednesday as out for the next game.
Johnson also missed practice on Wednesday, leaving his status uncertain. That could mean another big role for Watson, who hadn't started a game since 2002.
Watson signed with Washington as an undrafted player from Penn State in 2001. He had a pair of 100-yard games for the Redskins, starting four times in two seasons. The Bengals signed him as a reserve running back and special teams player.
He carried only 25 times last season for 138 yards, and caught 23 passes for 213 yards in his role as third-down back. Palmer lobbied the Bengals to keep him in the offseason, and Watson got a three-year deal in April.
Two weeks later, it looked like his job was in jeopardy when the Bengals drafted running back Kenny Irons in the second round. They also had Chris Perry, their first-round pick in 2004, coming back from a broken leg.
Perry is still in his comeback, and Irons tore a knee ligament in the preseason, leaving Watson next in line when Johnson got hurt. Finally, he had a chance.
``It's always been against him,'' Palmer said. ``He's a free agent coming out of college. He's kind of had to scrap to make a team. He had to scrap to be here, then they sign Rudi to a big deal. They draft a first-round tailback. They draft a second-round tailback. He's never been given an opportunity. He's had to fight for it, and now he's finally getting it.''
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