They missed thepoint. The fans missed it, including even the small cluster of Bengalssupporters who crammed themselves into a corner of Heinz Field on Sunday inPittsburgh, toasting Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer as he ran off thefield after a rollicking 28--20 victory over the Steelers. The media missed it,including those reporters who urged Palmer postgame to claim retribution forlast January. They all missed it. This is not about one game for Palmer oranyone else in the unforgiving AFC North. It is about five months of survival.¬∂ It's true that Palmer found himself on Sunday in a nasty tussle (he wassacked six times, fumbled three times and threw two interceptions) with thesame team that, eight months earlier and 300 miles away, had ended his and theBengals' season in an AFC playoff game in which his left knee was crumpled by aPittsburgh lineman. True, during the off-season Palmer told SI that he"hates" the Steelers, but that's where that storyline ended for him."People want to hear me talk about this being a revenge game," Palmersaid an hour after Sunday's victory, standing in a stadium tunnel with a USCTrojans No. 3 duffel bag slung over his shoulder. "Here's what it was: anintense, physical game against the team that knocked us out of the playoffs andwon the Super Bowl last year. I was happy to be playing in this game. Last yearI had something taken away from me that I loved. I couldn't play football. NowI appreciate, more than ever, the chance to compete and win."
Sweet though thevictory was, keeping the Bengals unbeaten at 3--0 and tied with the Ravens atthe top of the AFC North, Palmer was well-advised to put it in perspective."Three games," said Bengals cornerback Tory James. "It's stillSeptember. Long way to go."
The Steelers,meanwhile, were ready for a minipanic even before kickoff. "You don't wantto overemphasize one early game," said Super Bowl MVP wideout Hines Wardlast Saturday as he headed to the airport to pick up friends coming in for thegame. "But let's face it--if you get two games behind two teams, you'reprobably not going to win the division and you're going to be fighting to makethe playoffs."
In the fourth yearof coach Marvin Lewis's tenure, the Bengals find themselves not only unbeatenbut also atop the toughest division in football, looking sideways at the rebornRavens and cautiously down at the Steelers. Even the Browns demand attention;they showed in their hard-fought 15--14 loss to Baltimore on Sunday that theyhave the makings of a spoiler. Said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, "There'snot a better division in football."
And within thatdivision, the Bengals and the Steelers have hatched a genuine, circle-the-daterivalry--one whose roots are in dispute. The Steelers point to last Dec. 4,when the Bengals beat them 38--31 at Heinz Field. After the game Cincinnatiwideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh grabbed one of the Steelers' beloved TerribleTowels and did something terrible with it. "He takes our Terrible Towel andcleans his shoes with it," said Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, as ifHoushmandzadeh had scraped his boots with the Shroud of Turin. The Bengalscounter that Ward started the bad blood six weeks earlier, when the Steelersbeat the Bengals 27--13 in Cincinnati. After catching a four-yard touchdownpass, the Pittsburgh wideout mimicked his counterpart Chad Johnson's end-zonecelebration. "Hines did my Riverdance," Johnson says, even moreoutraged than Porter.
It got better. Inthe aftermath of the playoff victory over the Bengals (when Palmer went down),Cowher led the Steelers in a boisterous locker room celebration that includedmocking the Bengals' "Who Dey?" chant--every bit as revered inCincinnati as the Terrible Towel is in Pittsburgh--and repeated the routineduring the team's Super Bowl parade. Those performances were caught on tape andtelecast more often than Deal or No Deal in both cities, to the delight ofSteelers fans and the ire of Bengals supporters. "In retrospect," saidCowher last week, "maybe I wouldn't have done it with camerasaround."
Pushingmotivational buttons, Lewis showed the Bengals a tape of the performances onWednesday of game week. "It's on them," said Bengals linebacker BrianSimmons, placing the onus for the mounting tension on the Steelers.
It was all too muchfor the volatile Porter, who before Sunday had 10 wins in 13 games against theBengals. "We always used to beat them and never really got hyped about it.We were supposed to beat them. I had buddies on those teams. They all wanted toget out of there. But we never said, 'Hey, y'all are sorry.' We just beat them,and that was that. Now they win a game and it's a rivalry all of asudden."
It's even moreheated after Sunday. The week's emotion spilled onto the field, resulting in afierce game best typified by Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark's crushing hiton Bengals wideout Chris Henry with Cincinnati leading 14--10 in the thirdquarter. Henry, a willowy 6'4", 200 pounds, had already caught twofirst-half touchdowns when Palmer led him too much on a skinny post. As Henryreached up with his right arm, Clark drilled him in the chest, popping the ballout of Henry's hand and into the arms of Steelers corner Ike Taylor. Henry wasdown for three minutes, stunned and windless. "How was it?" he saidafter the game, responding to a question about the hit. "It was big. And itpretty much sucked."
But for all thepregame hype and in-game talking, emotion didn't decide this contest. Rather,it was the performance of the two young quarterbacks: Pittsburgh's BenRoethlisberger, the third-year Steel City icon who last year became theyoungest quarterback to win a Super Bowl; and Palmer, the fourth-year HeismanTrophy winner who threw 32 touchdown passes in 2005.
It has been afamously trying seven months for Roethlisberger, from an NFL championship inFebruary to a serious motorcycle accident in June to an emergency appendectomyfour nights before the season opener against Miami, to his first start 11 dayslater on a Monday night in Jacksonville, where he struggled in a 9--0 loss.That off-key showing sparked debate as to whether he'd been rushed back tooquickly. "Ben had a hell of an off-season," says Ward. "You'dexpect the timing to be off, and it was. But we didn't catch every ball, and wedidn't protect him all that well. The whole team's performance againstJacksonville was embarrassing, not just Ben's."
Roethlisberger wassharp early against the Bengals, guiding the Steelers 80 yards on a first-drivescore. He was seldom sharp again, finishing with a hideous 30.7 quarterbackrating and at his low point getting picked by Delthea O'Neal on a badlyunderthrown deep ball late in the third quarter with the Steelers clinging to a17--14 lead. After the interception, the second of three, Roethlisberger wasbooed at home, perhaps for the first time in his career.
Palmer was muchbetter, albeit far from perfect. He spent long hours in the off-season watchingtape of the game in which he was injured. "Not because I wanted to relivethe hit," he said. "I wanted to learn more about Pittsburgh's defense,what they like to do in certain situations." By halftime Palmer hadconnected on 13 of 17 passes and hit Henry twice for touchdowns.
In the second half,however, Pittsburgh dialed up the ferocity of its pass rush, led by linebackersClark Haggans (two sacks) and Larry Foote (seven tackles, one sack). Palmerstruggled to find space in the pocket and fumbled several times when pressured.On the perimeter, Pittsburgh defenders trash-talked Houshmandzadeh and Johnson.The Bengals talked back, inciting Palmer's anger. Said Houshmandzadeh,"We're in the huddle in the fourth quarter, down by three points, andCarson just says to me and Chad, 'Shut up and play.'"
Palmer said,"Pittsburgh tries to get you into their game, and their game is to jaw alot. We were getting a little caught up in the moment, and that's not ourgame."
Ultimately theSteelers handed Palmer his chances to win. With just over eight minutes toplay, return man Ricardo Colclough muffed a punt in the red zone, and 40seconds later running back Vernon Haynes fumbled at the Steelers' 30. Palmerconverted both turnovers into one-play drives, twice hitting Houshmandzedah fortouchdowns that silenced Heinz Field.
The Bengals mightnot need such generosity next time. Houshmandzadeh was making his firstappearance since bruising his heel on Aug. 28, an injury still so sore thatwhen he spun around in the stadium hallway to pick his iPod off the floor afterdropping it, he hopped in pain. The Bengals also played without starting centerRich Braham (bruised knee) and starting strong safety Dexter Jackson (sprainedankle), who are expected back soon. It is a team rising.
And their work isjust beginning in earnest. There is a three-week stretch from late October intoearly November when the Bengals play Carolina, Atlanta and the first of twogames with the Ravens. Pittsburgh awaits a rematch on New Year's Eve, withplayoff positions possibly in the balance.
It is onlySeptember. But on this afternoon, it was instructive to note the symbolism inPalmer ending his work against the Steelers not by clutching a knee but bytaking one.
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GETTING PHYSICAL When they weren't jawing with the Steelers, Rudi Johnson's Bengals were clawing their way past their nemeses.
AL TIELEMANS (2)
ZONED IN Houshmandzadeh's leaping fourth-quarter touchdown catch silenced the Heinz Field faithful.