By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 9, 2006
CINCINNATI, Jan. 8 -- Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said last week his team was "going into an alley" with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the opening round of the playoffs, "and only one of us gets to come out."
Little could he know that the first victim of this rumble at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday would be his own Pro Bowl quarterback, Carson Palmer.
Moments after launching a 66-yard completion to wide receiver Chris Henry on the Bengals' second offensive play of the game, Palmer tore ligaments in his left knee, a season-ending injury, when 300-pound defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen was blocked into him from the quarterback's blind side by guard Eric Steinbach. Palmer crumpled on the field, writhing in pain, and had to be carted to the locker room as backup Jon Kitna trotted in to replace him.
Kitna, the Bengals' starter two years ago, led his emotionally charged team to early 10-0 and 17-7 leads, but the loss of Palmer and, four plays later, Henry, also with a knee injury, eventually was too much to overcome for Cincinnati. Playing in their first postseason game in 15 years, the Bengals unraveled in the second half as Pittsburgh's defense began dominating and Steelers second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, using a dazzling trick play for one 43-yard touchdown pass, rallied his team to a 31-17 victory in front of 65,870.
The Steelers' fifth straight triumph, and second win in this stadium this season, advanced them to a second-round game on the road against the AFC's top seed, the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts, on Sunday.
"I knew right away it was bad," Palmer said. "I felt my whole knee pop. It was just a sickening feeling because I knew what it was and I knew my season was over."
Lewis refused to blame Palmer's injury for the Bengals' loss.
"It's over," he said. "It's not devastating. Carson has an injury. He'll be back. We as a football team need to learn from this.
"We came here as a team and we have to leave here as a team. We need to understand it's about working through the tough times. . . . Keep your eye on the target. Do your job."
Bengals tackle Willie Anderson said Palmer's injury "raised our awareness in the huddle. Guys were ticked off, mad. We knew we didn't have our usual gunslinger in there. . . . You immediately thought it was a dirty hit. But I know Kimo. He's not a dirty player. He's a good guy and he plays hard. He was immediately remorseful. It's just an unfortunate play."
The Steelers came into the game with an 0-3 record in playoff road games under Coach Bill Cowher, who is now 8-2 in opening-round postseason games over his 14-year tenure. Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes, matching his career high, and the Steelers, sending wave upon wave of blitzers, shut out the Bengals' struggling offense in the second half and intercepted two of Kitna's throws.
"I feel very badly about Carson Palmer," Cowher said. "It's an unfortunate accident. You hate to see someone's season end like that. . . . What happened was nothing that was intentional and I don't think anyone would interpret it that way."
The Steelers rolled up 144 rushing yards, improving to 12-0 when they gain at least 100 yards on the ground, and 33-year-old Jerome Bettis led the way with 52 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
Many of the Bengals said they felt that the game started slipping away on their opening drive of the second half. Clinging to a 17-14 advantage at intermission, the Bengals moved from their 23 to a first down at the Steelers 19. Cincinnati lined up for a 32-yard field goal attempt, but a high snap sailed over holder Kyle Larson. Place kicker Shayne Graham recovered, but Cincinnati came away with no points on the drive.
That turned into a critical 10-point swing when the Steelers then drove 66 yards, mostly aided by a pass interference penalty against safety Kevin Kaesviharn as he tried to cover wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. The 40-yard penalty put the ball at the Bengals 5. From there, Bettis barreled in for his eighth touchdown in his last five games and the Steelers took their first lead, 21-17, with 5 minutes 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
"Not getting the field goal kind of deflated us," Kitna said.
The Steelers forced a punt after three plays and a penalty against the Bengals on the next series, then essentially put the game away on their ensuing possession with a gadget play they often have used under Cowher.
On third and three from the Bengals 43, Randle El went in motion from the wing to a position next to Roethlisberger and took a direct snap from center. Randle El, a college quarterback at Indiana, rolled to his right as if he was going to run, then stopped, wheeled and fired a pass back to his quarterback. Roethlisberger then launched his own deep throw downfield to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, who easily scored for a 28-17 Pittsburgh lead with 1:13 remaining in the third quarter.
The Bengals never penetrated beyond the Steelers 45 the rest of the game and Pittsburgh stretched the advantage to 31-17 on Jeff Reed's 21-yard field goal with 10:32 left. Troy Polamalu's interception of a Kitna pass with 4:12 to play was the final blow for the Bengals, the AFC North Division champions.
Kitna said he didn't know what to think when Palmer, whom he described as his best friend, went down after throwing his first playoff pass.
"The range of emotions on that play is incredible," he said. "I'm happy to play, excited about it. But I look around and someone's lying on the ground. I see Carson, and he's not getting up. . . . I knew when he laid on the ground, Carson is too tough to be laying there."
The Bengals said Palmer had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and that a decision on when he will undergo surgery had not been made. He was not hospitalized, and the team said he should be back in time for training camp this summer.
"I felt terrible for him," Kitna said. "The only chance I had to see him was at halftime. It brought tears to my eyes. That's just the reality of the game."