CINCINNATI – Carson Palmer threw four touchdown passes during a near-perfect performance in the swirling snow, and the Cincinnati Bengals beat San Diego 34-20 on Sunday, ending the Chargers' run of four straight playoff appearances.
The Chargers (8-7) froze up in their coldest game in nearly three years, repeatedly self-destructing on a raw, windy evening. The loss gave the AFC West title to Kansas City, which beat Tennessee 34-14 earlier in the day.
It was only San Diego's second loss in its last 22 games in December, one that will leave them chilled to the bone for a long time.
Palmer, a Southern California kid, led the Bengals (4-11) to their second straight win with a cast of reserve receivers. Two of his touchdown passes went to Jerome Simpson, including a 59-yarder in the fourth quarter. Palmer finished with a career-best passer rating of 157.2, just shy of a perfect 158.3.
After losing 10 in a row, matching the club record for futility, the Bengals have won back-to-back games in front of small home crowds. No surprise there — Cincinnati has won 18 of its last 23 home finales.
This could have been the last one for coach Marvin Lewis, finishing his eighth season in Cincinnati. He turned down a contract extension last season.
The Chargers have a habit of finishing fast and winning titles. This time, they took too long to get started, forcing them to win out. They couldn't do it in the unaccustomed cold — 29 degrees at the kickoff with a wind chill of 17. It was their coldest game since they dropped the AFC title game in New England at the end of the 2007 season.
The Chargers pretended they were plenty warm. Several came onto the field in blue shorts and sleeveless shirts for pregame warmups in a driving snow.
By the kickoff, they were well-chilled.
Receiver Vincent Jackson fumbled a handoff on a reverse on San Diego's opening play and had to chase it all the way back to the 1-yard line. The series ended with Mike Scifres shanking a 24-yard punt. Five plays later, Palmer threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham.
It would be that kind of day for the team from southern California.
Philip Rivers came into the game with a career passing rating of 100 in December, the best in league history. He was 27 of 40 for 256 yards with a touchdown and an interception that set up one of the Bengals' fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Palmer, who won the 2002 Heisman Trophy at USC, handled the bitter conditions with California cool. He was 16 of 21 for 269 yards without an interception. Two of the incompletions were drops by receivers.
Palmer has been throwing to a much different group of receivers the last two games. Terrell Owens is recovering from knee surgery, and Chad Ochocinco was inactive Sunday with a bad ankle. Simpson, a second-round pick in 2008, got only his second career start and had a career-high six catches for 124 yards.