CHARLOTTE — Carson Palmer was far from sharp and made some head-scratching decisions. It still was good enough for Cincinnati against a struggling Carolina offense that rookie Jimmy Clausen couldn’t jump-start.
Palmer shook off two interceptions to throw a game-clinching touchdown pass to Cedric Benson midway through the fourth quarter, and Benson rushed for another TD in the Bengals’ 20-7 victory against the Panthers on Sunday to spoil Clausen’s first NFL start.
Cincinnati (2-1) snapped a five-game road losing streak despite a mistake-filled performance of turnovers and penalties in drizzly weather that included little explosiveness from the receiving duo of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
But the Panthers (0-3) couldn’t take advantage with Clausen throwing for 188 yards and the Panthers committing four more turnovers.
Jonathan Stewart’s lost fumble set up Palmer’s 7-yard TD pass to Benson — the running back’s first career receiving TD — to put the Bengals ahead 20-7.
Benson added a 1-yard TD run in the first quarter and Mike Nugent kicked two more field goals in Cincinnati’s second straight victory.
Clausen, given the starting job last week after Matt Moore committed six turnovers in two games, didn’t fare much better. He also didn’t get much help as Carolina matched its woeful start from last season with a trip to New Orleans up next.
The former Notre Dame star and 48th overall pick in the draft, had a 0.0 passer rating at halftime and didn’t complete his second pass until the first minute of the third quarter.
Clausen finished 16-of-33 with an interception by Leon Hall and a lost fumble. But he had numerous passes dropped, and the running game failed to bail him out.
The Panthers, who had 6 yards passing and two first downs in the first half, finally showed some spark in the third quarter. Clausen led Carolina on an eight-play, 75-yard drive capped by Stewart’s 1-yard TD run to cut the deficit to 10-7.
The Bengals got a 50-yard field goal from Nugent early in the fourth quarter, but the Panthers then seemed to have something going when Clausen finally found Steve Smith for his first catch of the day on the ensuing possession. But Stewart fumbled on the next play, and Cincinnati’s Robert Geathers recovered.
It took just three plays for Palmer to get Cincinnati in the end zone to atone for his shaky performance.
Palmer was picked off by Captain Munnerlyn on his first possession and by Charles Godfrey later in the first half. He could’ve had four more picks had Carolina defenders hung on.
The final minute of the first half perhaps best summed up the offensive ugliness prevalent despite the presence of big-name receivers Ochocinco, Owens and Smith.
Carolina’s Mike Goodson dropped the ball as he took a handoff and kneed it high in the air and 10 yards downfield, where it was recovered by Cincinnati’s Morgan Trent at the Carolina 27.
The Bengals then seemingly were on their way to a half-ending touchdown when Palmer inexplicably threw a pass over the middle to Jermaine Gresham at the Carolina 5 with no timeouts remaining. Palmer, at first, didn’t seem to sense the urgency and couldn’t get a snap off before the half ended.
Palmer was 19 of 37 for 195 yards and Ochocinco and Owens combined for eight catches for 76 yards.
The running duo of Stewart and DeAngelo Williams managed just 77 yards for the Panthers, who have three touchdowns and 12 turnovers.