Cincinnat1 27 Bills 37
Chad Johnson set a merry mood, pulling championship T-shirts, caps and footballs out of his Santa bag and flinging them into the stands after his first-half touchdown.
Then, the Bengals got really generous.
Playing as a division champion for the first time in 15 years, the Bengals let a game and a first-round playoff bye get away Saturday. Terrence McGee returned a kickoff and an interception for a touchdown, rallying the Buffalo Bills to a 37-27 victory.
McGee is the first player in NFL history to do that in one game.
McGee’s 46-yard interception return with 35 seconds left sent 65,485 fans filing glumly out of the stadium in their orange-and-black Santa hats, stunned by what they’d just seen.
For the first time all season, the Bengals (11-4) lost a game they were expected to win, against a team that hadn’t won on the road all season. They needed a win to keep pace with Denver for the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.
Instead, the Broncos clinched it with a 22-3 victory over Oakland later Saturday.
"Oh, well. Can’t be great all the time," receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "If anybody thought we were that great, this brings them back to earth."
The Bengals clinched the AFC North title a week earlier in Detroit and wished for an afternoon of revelry in front of the home crowd. Instead, they got a reminder of what can happen when they let a game turn into a shootout.
"We need to truly learn from this, and know what playing like this can get us," offensive guard Bobbie Williams said. "It can get you an ‘L’ and when you get to the playoffs, getting an ‘L’ means you’re out of it."
The Bills (5-10) have been out of it for a long time, losing their previous five games. McGee and Kelly Holcomb led them to a feel-good win at the end of a disastrous season, one that has players wondering what ownership will do in the offseason.
"Nobody gave us a chance to beat these guys," said Holcomb, who was 24-of-31 for 308 yards. "We hadn’t won on the road. It definitely leaves a good taste in your mouth."
McGee had five kickoff returns for 220 yards, including his 99-yard sprint down the left sideline that sparked the comeback late in the third quarter. He set a club record with three kickoff touchdowns last season, and now owns the Bills’ career mark.
"I can’t even explain how I feel," said McGee, who failed to score on an 82-yard return earlier in the season. "All year, the only thing we’ve been missing is a touchdown."
Holcomb played another impressive game in the stadium where he’s had some of his best moments. Holcomb threw for five touchdowns and a career-high 413 yards in Cleveland’s 58-48 loss at Paul Brown Stadium last season.
Filling in a second straight week for injured J.P. Losman, Holcomb became the first Bills quarterback to throw for 300 yards in the last 45 games, ending a drought that started after Drew Bledsoe passed for 314 in the second game of the 2003 season.
McGee clinched it by picking off Carson Palmer’s sideline pass-under-pressure and returning it untouched. Palmer, going to the Pro Bowl in only his second season, went 25-of-36 for 266 yards with two interceptions.
"Just a bad decision," Palmer said. "I was just trying to get the ball out of bounds (after a completion) and stop the clock. He made a good play on the ball. I should have thrown it over his head and into the stands."
The Bills won their eighth in a row over Cincinnati, which hasn’t beaten them since the 1988 AFC title game. They pulled everything out of their bag of tricks in this one — the flea-flicker, the onside kick, the reverse on a kickoff.
"We just let it go," coach Mike Mularkey said. "We threw it all at ’em. I felt like we had to put some points on the board any way we could."
Johnson provided the only satisfying moment for the home crowd, emptying a bag of gifts after his 41-yard touchdown catch put Cincinnati ahead 14-13 shortly before halftime. He had a red bag of gifts hidden on the sideline, and tossed autographed AFC North championship shirts, caps and footballs into the crowd.
The Bills then turned those presents into consolation gifts.
"We let them hang around too long," Palmer lamented.
Palmer slightly pulled groin muscles while scrambling on the play before the clinching interception, but said the injury isn’t worrisome. … Bills receiver Eric Moulds had a season-high 10 catches for 99 yards — exactly what he needed to reach 9,000 yards career. … CB Deltha O’Neal hurt his right knee while making a tackle on the Bengals’ first defensive play and left for an exam. He returned in the second quarter.