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The ball was in the air and Champ Bailey was on the ground, watching Chad Johnson pull away with no one between him and the end zone.

Would the chastened receiver drop the ball the way he did so many times a week ago?

Not a chance. Not with his reputation on the line. Not with a city's hopes on his fingertips.

Johnson's 50-yard touchdown catch gave the Cincinnati Bengals the gumption they needed to beat the Denver Broncos, 23-10, in their long-awaited return to "Monday Night Football."

"This was what we needed," said Johnson, who had seven catches for 149 yards.

The Bengals (2-4) hadn't hosted a Monday night game in 15 years and hadn't even played in one since 1992, an exile that reflected their ineptitude. No other team had gone so long without appearing in the Monday night lineup.

The crowd of 65,806 -- the largest ever in Paul Brown Stadium -- was hoping the last-place team wouldn't become another national embarrassment.

Quite the opposite.

The Broncos (5-2) played the role of bumblers, failing to get what they needed out of the league's top running game and one of its very best defenses.

"We just didn't have it," said Reuben Droughns, who ran for 110 yards but fumbled and failed to convert short-yardage plays. "It seemed like they had more fight than us."

One play got the Bengals hyped for the upset.

Johnson ran right past Bailey, who stumbled and fell while the receiver pulled away for his 50-yard touchdown play midway through the first quarter. All it took was one play to get the Bengals believing.

"They believe in covering man-to-man and loading up to stop the run," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "We were counting on Chad, leaning on Chad to get open and catch balls downfield."

He did it all night, winning the marquee matchup of Pro Bowl receiver versus Pro Bowl cornerback.

"I'm not afraid of any challenge," said Bailey, who has rarely been beaten so often. "I feel like I am the best. I don't care who is out there."

Johnson was coming off a 34-17 loss in Cleveland in which he had three catches and three drops.

The Bengals repeatedly gave the Broncos openings to rally, managing only three field goals out of five drives inside the 20-yard line. Denver simply wasn't up to it.

Jake Plummer threw two interceptions and was sacked three times, matching his total for the first six games. And a defense that ranked among the league's best in every category allowed Johnson to get open and Rudi Johnson to run for 119 yards and a touchdown.

Around the league

* The Carolina Panthers lost any hope of DeShaun Foster playing again this season when it was determined the running back needs surgery on his broken collarbone. Foster was expected to miss six to 10 weeks after he was hurt in an Oct. 10 loss to Denver.

* Starting left guard Frank Middleton and rookie receiver Carlos Francis have been lost for the remainder of the Oakland Raiders' season because of injuries suffered in Sunday's loss to New Orleans that will require surgery. In addition, cornerback Charles Woodson was having an MRI exam Monday for a hip pointer and his status was uncertain.

* Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott felt his right knee pop in Sunday's victory over Chicago and will be sidelined at least a month with a sprained medial collateral ligament.

* Left tackle Jonathan Ogden probably will miss the Baltimore Ravens' game against the unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles this week with a pulled left hamstring.

* Dallas receiver Terry Glenn will be out at least two weeks with a sprained right foot. Coach Bill Parcells said the injury won't require surgery but is "pretty severe."

* Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre sprained his right hand in Sunday's win over Dallas. His practice work will be limited this week. He's not expected to miss Sunday's game at Washington.

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