Cincinnati, OH - Carson Palmer's late-game heroics have made the Cincinnati Bengals AFC North leaders and one of the biggest surprises in the NFL.
The Houston Texans' inability to convert scoring chances is leading to more disappointment.
Palmer and the Bengals will try for their longest winning streak in 21 years when they host the inconsistent Texans on Sunday.
Oddsmakers from online sports book SPORTSBETTING.com have made the Bengals –4.5 point spread favorites (View NFL odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 68% of bets for this game have been placed on the Bengals –4.5 (View NFL bet percentages).
Cincinnati (4-1) opened 2009 looking to show some improvement from a 4-11-1 season that saw Palmer miss 12 games with an elbow injury.
The quarterback has clearly put the injury woes behind him, engineering last-minute drives to lead the Bengals to wins in each of their last three games. They could have four comeback wins, but a fluky tipped pass led to an 87-yard touchdown with 11 seconds to play in a season-opening loss to Denver on Sept. 13. That came 27 seconds after Palmer helped Cincinnati take the lead on a 91-yard scoring drive.
Palmer's latest heroic feat came with 22 seconds left last Sunday, when he hit Andre Caldwell on a 20-yard scoring pass to cap an 11-play, 80-yard drive and beat Baltimore 17-14.
During his four last-minute scoring drives, Palmer has completed 66 percent of his throws and has a passer rating of 112.8. The rest of the time, he has completed 56 percent of his throws and has a rating of 67.4.
"Whenever one of those situations happen, we know we've been there before," safety Roy Williams said. "With Carson having the ball in the last seconds, I'm putting my money on Carson."
Palmer hurt the thumb on his non-throwing hand against the Ravens, but he feels he can play through it. Last week, he used his right hand to hand the ball off to running back Cedric Benson, the league leader with 487 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
"Not an issue at all," Palmer said of using his throwing hand. "I broke my collarbone in college one time and needed to do that for a couple of games. I've done it before and it's one of those things you do on the fly."
The Bengals are in position to win a fifth consecutive game in a season for the first time since opening 1988 at 6-0, en route to their second - and last - Super Bowl appearance. They also won six in a row bridging 2004 and '05 - Palmer's first two NFL seasons.
The Texans (2-3) have alternated wins and losses due to problems in the red zone.
Houston came up empty on three plays from the 1-yard line in the final minute of a 28-21 loss at Arizona in Week 5. This came two weeks after Chris Brown fumbled at the goal line late in a 31-24 defeat to Jacksonville.
"It's real hard," left tackle Duane Brown said. "In my whole football career, there's nothing like it. To know that you were one yard away from changing the game, it's very sad for us."
The Texans are 29th in the league in red zone efficiency, scoring on 13 of their 18 chances.
One of the reasons for those problems is a ground game that also ranks 29th with 377 yards and two touchdowns.
"You have to have your run game established and as a football team you should be able to get one yard," wide receiver Andre Johnson said. "It's killed us in two games. We just have to take it upon ourselves to get the job done. If we can get our running game going, I think it will help us out a whole lot."
Steve Slaton is having a rough sophomore season, rushing for 231 yards with a 3.2 average per carry and a score, while also losing two fumbles to match his total from all of last season. That's in stark contrast to his outstanding 2008, when he set a franchise record with 1,282 rushing yards while topping the 100-yard mark five times and adding 10 total TDs.
With the ground game stumbling, Matt Schaub has had to pick up the offensive slack. The quarterback is third in the NFL with 1,418 passing yards and tied for second with the New York Giants' Eli Manning at 10 touchdowns, two back of Peyton Manning of Indianapolis.
Schaub completed 35 of 50 passes for a season-high 371 yards with two TDs and one interception against the Cardinals.
He may have a hard time against the Bengals' improving defense, which is tied with the Bears, Giants and Seattle for fourth in the league with 14 sacks - only three fewer than its entire 2008 production.
The unit held the Ravens' high-powered offense to a season-low 257 yards with two sacks and two interceptions.
"I still think we're a work in progress," safety Chinedum Ndukwe said. "I don't think the defense is really playing up to where it should be playing. We're still doing a lot of things wrong, but the effort and intensity we approach the game with covers up a lot of the mistakes we make."
Posted: 10/14/09 8:07PM ET