CINCINNATI - Jerome Simpson's heels-over-head touchdown still has the Bengals flipped out.

The fourth-year receiver pulled off the defining play of his career on Saturday, vaulting over an Arizona linebacker and landing on his feet in the end zone during a 23-16 victory. Teammates were awed by the way he stuck the landing and raised both arms like a triumphant gymnast.

His coach? Not so thrilled.

Marvin Lewis said yesterday that Simpson could have taken a much easier and less risky route to the end zone. A bad landing could have left Cincinnati (9-6) in a bad way heading into a make-or-break game.

"You just have to be careful," Lewis said. "There's other ways to score. It's him and a linebacker, so just cut back and score the easy way. For effect, it sure was big."

The play helped the Bengals build a 23-0 lead. They barely held on, securing only their third winning record in the last 21 years. A win on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium over Baltimore (11-4) would clinch the final AFC wild-card berth.

Simpson's 19-yard highlight play started when he caught a pass and headed down the left sideline. When he reached the 2-yard line, he saw linebacker Daryl Washington headed for him, shoulder down to deliver a hit.

Instead of trying to avoid him, Simpson left his feet and tucked his head to somersault over the linebacker. Simpson landed on both feet simultaneously, crouched with the ball in his right hand. He put his left hand on the ground briefly to steady himself, then stood up and raised both arms in celebration.

"To tell you the truth, it was just instinct," Simpson said. "I just saw the guy. It seemed like he was going to hit me, and I didn't want to get hit. I used my athletic ability and my jumping ability. I've jumped over a guy before, but never did a flip and landed it."

The landing was the most impressive part.

"I don't know what the Russian judge would've given him," Lewis said yesterday. "It was a pretty good landing. With Jerome's athleticism - we've spoken about it many, many times. And that was another display - a public display - of it. He's got incredible athletic tools.

"He played very hard in this game. So I'm proud of him for how he continues to keep playing. He went in there and blocked hard. We just keep pushing him to be as consistent as he can be in all phases of the game."

The Bengals drafted Simpson in the second round in 2008 out of Coastal Carolina. He had a tough time learning coordinator Bob Bratkowski's offense and started only four games in his first three seasons.

The Bengals were enamored with Simpson's speed, big hands and ability to leap for the ball. They've seen glimpses of it in practice.

"He's not normal," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "The guy's got freakish talent and ability, and he gets to show it from time to time. When he locks in and puts his head down, he's going to be special."

Simpson got his chance to start regularly this season in Jay Gruden's new offense after the Bengals allowed Terrell Owens to leave as a free agent and traded Chad Ochocinco to New England. He has kept a low profile since September, when authorities said a package containing 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana was delivered to his girlfriend at his northern Kentucky home. Simpson hasn't been charged.

His performance on the field has been inconsistent. He had a season-high eight catches for 152 yards in a loss at Baltimore on Nov. 20, then a total of six catches for 67 yards in the next four games combined.

Against the Cardinals, he had five catches for 42 yards and his fourth touchdown of the season, the one with the unforgettable finish.

"I thought the landing was the best," Whitworth said. "I'm not really surprised he did it because I've seen him leap. I thought he really would just vertically jump over the guy and land it, but the flip was a nice added touch."