A Wrong Turn for the Bengals

Times Staff Writer

It took 15 years for Cincinnati to get back to the NFL playoffs, yet the Bengals didn't last 15 minutes Sunday before encountering a crippling setback.

Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer, shouldering the Super Bowl dreams of a downtrodden franchise, suffered a serious knee injury on his first pass in a 31-17 wild-card loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

The injury happened on Cincinnati's second play from scrimmage, when 299-pound Pittsburgh defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into Palmer. Players from both teams -- among them Von Oelhoffen -- said the gruesome collision was purely accidental.

The play instantly ended Palmer's season. And four quarters later, his Bengal teammates were packing their bags too.

Despite respectable play from backup quarterback Jon Kitna, the Bengals were unable to sustain the initial burst of adrenaline that came after losing their leader.

The Steelers took control in the second half and rumbled to victory before a dispirited crowd. The stadium was a sea of orange and black, and there were relatively few Steeler fans in the crowd. Cincinnati season-ticket holders were urged during the week leading up to the game not to sell their tickets, especially to fans from Pittsburgh. So it was an impressive show of support for this season's surprise Super Bowl contenders.

Then came Palmer's injury. He said he knew right away it was serious.

"I felt my whole knee pop," Palmer said in a team release. "I didn't feel a lot of pain. It wasn't really painful at all physically. It was just a sickening feeling because I knew what it was and that my season was over."

Palmer, the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner from USC who recently signed a six-year contract extension worth $118.75 million, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. (CBS reported Palmer sustained two torn ligaments.) As of Sunday evening, a decision on when he will undergo surgery had not been made. The team said it "hopes" he will be ready for training camp next summer, and that he left the stadium on crutches with a knee brace. He was not hospitalized.

His teammates, meanwhile, rallied behind his replacement. Laying the groundwork for a story they could tell their grandchildren, the Bengals scored two quick touchdowns after Palmer went down and looked as if they might pull off the stunner of the season. They couldn't hang onto a three-point halftime lead, however, and were outscored in the second half, 17-0.

"It wasn't an 'Aw, man' surge," Bengal receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "It was, 'Let's rally around Carson. Let's win this game so he can watch us.' But it was tough, man."

So were the Steelers, who have won their first playoff game in each of their last eight postseason appearances. They will play Sunday at Indianapolis, a place where they lost, 26-7, in November. Asked if he viewed the divisional game as a score-settling rematch, Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher said no.

"Right now," he said, "we're just enjoying playing."

And his team looked as if it was having fun against the Bengals, especially on a spirit-snapping 43-yard touchdown play in the second half. Receiver Antwaan Randle El took a direct snap in front of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the play, sprinted toward the right sideline, then spun and threw back to Roethlisberger. Then, Roethlisberger hit a wide-open Cedrick Wilson for the touchdown that put the Steelers up, 28-17.

"They're good receivers and Ben's got a lot of trust in them," Cowher said. "Ben's been working in practice to develop some timing and continuity. That will be the biggest difference against Indianapolis this time."

Roethlisberger's three-touchdown, no-interception performance sharply contrasted his postseason experience as a rookie last season, when, in two games, he had five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

A week after scoring three touchdowns in a do-or-die game at Detroit, Steeler running back Jerome Bettis rushed for a team-high 52 yards in 10 carries, and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a five-yard run in the third quarter. On that drive, he converted two third-and-one situations with bruising runs up the gut.

"That's my role," he said. "Third and one, I'm licking my chops because it's my opportunity to come in and make an impact in the game. When they called my number, I knew I had to get my yard."

Although the Steelers weren't anything close to somber after the game, several of them did express concern for Palmer.

TV replays appeared to show that Von Oelhoffen stumbled into him at knee level a moment after Palmer released a pass that was caught by Chris Henry for 66 yards. (Evidently, Henry also sustained a knee injury on the play. He attempted to make a cut a few plays later, fell flat on his face and had to be helped off the field. He didn't return.) As soon as he turned and saw Palmer writhing on the ground, Von Oelhoffen clapped his hands together in frustration.

"I ain't gonna lie, it affected me," said Von Oelhoffen, a 12-year veteran who spent his first six seasons with the Bengals. "Because that kid deserved a shot to play in this game. It's always horrible when a player gets injured. Always. You don't want that. We're NFL football players. We're together. We compete against each other, but that's it."

Palmer had to be carted off the field. He said his first thoughts -- after the initial shock of the injury -- concerned whether the Bengals still had a chance to win. As for him, he's now dealing with the first serious injury of his pro career.

"I know it's going to be a long road back, but it's a long way until the next training camp," he said. "... I feel bad right now for what happened, for our team and our fans. But at the same time, I'm excited thinking about next year."

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