CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmy Clausen took a hard shot to the ribs and crumpled to the turf just after releasing his final pass Sunday, a fourth-down heave into the end zone that fell incomplete.
His miserable day wasn't over as he staggered to his feet. Fiery teammate Steve Smith was waiting on the sideline with a tongue-lashing.
It made Carson Palmer's shaky day look not so bad at all.
Palmer shook off two interceptions to throw a clinching touchdown pass to Cedric Benson midway through the fourth quarter. Benson rushed for another TD in the Cincinnati Bengals' ugly 20-7 victory over Carolina to spoil Clausen's first NFL start and continue the Panthers' horrible beginning to the season.
"I'm trying to get Smitty the ball as many times as we can. He's our big playmaker on offense," said Clausen on taking the brunt of Smith's frustration. "It's tough sometimes trying to get him the ball when there are two guys doubling Steve."
Cincinnati (2-1) snapped a five-game road losing streak despite a mistake-filled performance in drizzly weather that included little explosiveness from the receiving duo of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
"I missed a couple of passes that were just a little off," said Palmer, who had four more passes nearly intercepted and made a bizarre mental error at the end of the first half that cost Cincinnati three points. "It's just something that we're going to keep working on."
Little offensive firepower was needed with the former Notre Dame star Clausen unable to jump-start Carolina's feeble offense that committed four more turnovers. The Panthers have three touchdowns and 12 turnovers in their second straight 0-3 start.
Clausen, who took over when Matt Moore was benched last week, threw for 188 yards with an interception and lost fumble.
"I don't think it's a rookie quarterback problem. I don't think it's fair to blame Jimmy or Matt," said Smith, who had calmed down after the game. "I don't think it's fair to blame me or [rookie receiver] David Gettis. There are a lot of people involved in this thing."
Jonathan Stewart's lost fumble set up Palmer's 7-yard TD pass to Benson -- the running back's first career TD receiving -- to put the Bengals ahead 20-7.
Benson added a 1-yard TD run in the first quarter and Mike Nugent kicked two field goals in Cincinnati's second straight victory. The Bengals beat Baltimore last week without scoring a touchdown.
"This isn't the BCS," cornerback Leon Hall said. "We just need a win."
Hall intercepted Clausen in his miserable first half that included a 0.0 passer rating. He didn't complete his second pass until the first minute of the third quarter.
Clausen finished 16 of 33, but he had numerous passes dropped. Stewart and DeAngelo Williams managed just 77 yards rushing.
Embattled coach John Fox said it was "too early" to say who will start next week at New Orleans, but deflected much of the blame from Clausen.
"We had a little bit of a spark for about 3 1/2 minutes," Fox said. "In this league, that's not enough"
After managing 6 yards passing and two first downs in the first half, 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.
Trailing 13-7, Clausen finally found 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 to set up the clinching score
The final minute of the first half perhaps best summed up the offensive ugliness despite the presence of big-name receivers Ochocinco, Owens and Smith.
The Bengals then seemingly were on their way to a half-ending touchdown when Palmer inexplicably threw over the middle to Jermaine Gresham at the Carolina 5 with no timeouts left. Palmer 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.
"You try to take pride in our passing game," Owens said. "Obviously, the weather conditions prohibited us from doing some things down the field."
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