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Breakthrough
TIM LAYDEN
October 02, 2006
They were playing for a lot more than payback, but the Bengals did get some revenge against the Steelers in the best rivalry in football and set themselves up as top cats in the NFL's toughest division
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October 02, 2006

Breakthrough

They were playing for a lot more than payback, but the Bengals did get some revenge against the Steelers in the best rivalry in football and set themselves up as top cats in the NFL's toughest division

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It has been a famously trying seven months for Roethlisberger, from an NFL championship in February to a serious motorcycle accident in June to an emergency appendectomy four nights before the season opener against Miami, to his first start 11 days later 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 too quickly. "Ben had a hell of an off-season," says Ward. "You'd expect the timing to be off, and it was. But we didn't catch every ball, and we didn't protect him all that well. The whole team's performance against Jacksonville was embarrassing, not just Ben's."

Roethlisberger was sharp early against the Bengals, guiding the Steelers 80 yards on a first-drive score. He was seldom sharp again, finishing with a hideous 30.7 quarterback rating and at his low point getting picked by Delthea O'Neal on a badly underthrown deep ball late in the third quarter with the Steelers clinging to a 17--14 lead. After the interception, the second of three, Roethlisberger was booed at home, perhaps for the first time in his career.

Palmer was much better, albeit far from perfect. He spent long hours in the off-season watching tape of the game in which he was injured. "Not because I wanted to relive the hit," he said. "I wanted to learn more about Pittsburgh's defense, what they like to do in certain situations." By halftime Palmer had connected 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 linebackers Clark Haggans (two sacks) and Larry Foote (seven tackles, one sack). Palmer struggled 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, and Carson 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 a lot. We were getting a little caught up in the moment, and that's not our game."

Ultimately the Steelers handed Palmer his chances to win. With just over eight minutes to play, return man Ricardo Colclough muffed a punt in the red zone, and 40 seconds later running back Vernon Haynes fumbled at the Steelers' 30. Palmer converted both turnovers into one-play drives, twice hitting Houshmandzedah for touchdowns that silenced Heinz Field.

The Bengals might not need such generosity next time. Houshmandzadeh was making his first appearance since bruising his heel on Aug. 28, an injury still so sore that when he spun around in the stadium hallway to pick his iPod off the floor after dropping it, he hopped in pain. The Bengals also played without starting center Rich Braham (bruised knee) and starting strong safety Dexter Jackson (sprained ankle), who are expected back soon. It is a team rising.

And their work is just beginning in earnest. There is a three-week stretch from late October into early November when the Bengals play Carolina, Atlanta and the first of two games with the Ravens. Pittsburgh awaits a rematch on New Year's Eve, with playoff positions possibly in the balance.

It is only September. But on this afternoon, it was instructive to note the symbolism in Palmer ending his work against the Steelers not by clutching a knee but by taking one.

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