By Leonard Shapiro
Tuesday, January 10, 2006 2:37 PM
The drive from downtown Cincinnati to the airport Monday morning was a maddening journey, if only because the radio was tuned in to a classically irresponsible talk show host on WLW. Bill Cunningham was the so-called host and he billed himself as the conscience of the Bengals. Mostly though, it was unconscionable that he was allowed to spew the sort of venom that poisoned the local airwaves.
The day before, the Bengals had been eliminated from the NFL playoffs by the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game marred by the season-ending knee injury to Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer on his team's second play from scrimmage, on the first pass he had thrown in his first postseason game.
Palmer took a low hit on his left knee from Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, sending him down in a heap, writhing on the turf.
Replays indicated that von Oelhoffen had been pushed down toward the quarterback and seemingly had been unable to avoid the collision that sent the Bengals Pro Bowl quarterback and MVP back to the dressing room and heading toward surgery later this week.
Von Oelhoffen was visibly upset watching Palmer lay prone on the field immediately after the play, and apologized profusely afterward, saying, "that kid deserved the shot to play in this game. It's always horrible when that kind of thing happens. We're all football players...I felt terrible."
But Cunningham wanted no part of that apology, or what the replay of the play clearly indicated -- that it was inadvertent hit and a freak collision, one of hundreds that occur in every football game involving virtually every player on the field. Instead, the radio moron kept describing the hit as criminal, as an out and out assault and definitely premeditated, even if all concerned, including Palmer and many of his teammates, all said afterward it was simply one of the unfortunate consequences of an extremely violent sport.
Cunningham just kept ranting, saying the Steelers lineman should have been penalized for a late hit, immediately thrown out and ought to be suspended for the second round. He even called into question the manhood of the Bengals for not retaliating with a cheap shot on Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to get a little eye-for-an-eye, knee-for-a-knee revenge.
Sadly, virtually every caller to the show, at least every caller that got through his screener anyway, agreed with the venomous host. All of them also were convinced that with Palmer in the lineup, instead of his skittish backup John Kitna, the Bengals surely would have thumped the Steelers and moved forward to a second round game in Denver.
Of course, we'll never know, but this much is easily discernible. The Bengals might have scored more points than the Steelers with Palmer on the field, but how come the Bengals' defense was unable to protect early leads of 10-0, 17-7 and 17-14 at the half? Why couldn't they prevent the Steelers from putting 31 points on the board, including three Roethlisberger touchdown passes and a five-yard scoring run from Jerome Bettis?
Last time I looked, Pittsburgh was running at will in the second half, completing several deep throws, including one delightfully deceptive piece of razzle-dazzle trickery for a touchdown, while at the same time its defense stuffed the Bengals running game and intercepted two of Jon Kitna's passes in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals had a league high 44 takeaways this season. Yet, in their most important game of the year, their defense was unable to force a single turnover, as much a reason for the loss as Palmer's injury. Even their head coach, Marvin Lewis, admitted his team had letdown after Palmer went down, and added that good football teams don't allow any adversity to stand in their way.
"It's about working through the tough times," he said afterward.
At this time of the year, the teams that usually go deep in the playoffs feature strong running attacks and stout, ball-hawking defenses. Virtually every one of the eight remaining teams in the tournament has exhibited those attributes in getting to the second round, and they'll have to keep playing that sort of football in order to advance to the Super Bowl in Detroit next month.
Even the Indianapolis Colts have finally put together a solid defensive unit after years of trying to rely almost solely on the arm of Peyton Manning and the running skills of Edgerrin James to simply outscore any and all opponents. It worked fine until they faced the New England Patriots each of the last two years, and then it was over and out for the formerly one-dimensional Colts.
At the moment, the Redskins look to be the most vulnerable among the final eight, if only because of their anemic 120-yard offensive output in knocking Tampa Bay out of the postseason. They'll also be playing in arguably one of the noisiest outdoor stadiums in the league, and that won't help their linemen and running backs get off the ball, let alone allow the receivers to hear an audible from Mark Brunell.
I'll pick Seattle to prevail, and then win the following week in the NFC title game, also on their home field, most likely against a Carolina team that will upset the equally one-dimensional, defensively dominating Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
In the AFC, I'll stick with my preseason pick of the Colts to advance to the Super Bowl, and they'll have to beat the defending champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game to do it. That's right. I'll take Tom Brady over Denver's erratic Jake Plummer any day.
I'll also know better the next time I happen to be in Cincinnati to keep the radio tuned away from the conscience of the Bengals. The guy was irresponsible and way out of line, and if anyone ought to be suspended, or even become the target of a cheap shot (verbal, of course) Bill Cunningham would be my No. 1 pick.