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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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They missed the point. The fans missed it, including even the small cluster of Bengals supporters who crammed themselves into a corner of Heinz Field on Sunday in Pittsburgh, toasting Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer as he ran off the field after a rollicking 28--20 victory over the Steelers. The media missed it, including those reporters who urged Palmer postgame to claim retribution for last January. They all missed it. This is not about one game for Palmer or anyone 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 was sacked six times, fumbled three times and threw two interceptions) with the same team that, eight months earlier and 300 miles away, had ended his and the Bengals' season in an AFC playoff game in which his left knee was crumpled by a Pittsburgh 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," Palmer said an hour after Sunday's victory, standing in a stadium tunnel with a USC Trojans No. 3 duffel bag slung over his shoulder. "Here's what it was: an intense, physical game against the team that knocked us out of the playoffs and won the Super Bowl last year. I was happy to be playing in this game. Last year I had something taken away from me that I loved. I couldn't play football. Now I appreciate, more than ever, the chance to compete and win."

Sweet though the victory was, keeping the Bengals unbeaten at 3--0 and tied with the Ravens at the top of the AFC North, Palmer was well-advised to put it in perspective. "Three games," said Bengals cornerback Tory James. "It's still September. Long way to go."

The Steelers, meanwhile, were ready for a minipanic even before kickoff. "You don't want to overemphasize one early game," said Super Bowl MVP wideout Hines Ward last Saturday as he headed to the airport to pick up friends coming in for the game. "But let's face it--if you get two games behind two teams, you're probably not going to win the division and you're going to be fighting to make the playoffs."

In the fourth year of coach Marvin Lewis's tenure, the Bengals find themselves not only unbeaten but also atop the toughest division in football, looking sideways at the reborn Ravens 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 they have the makings of a spoiler. Said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, "There's not a better division in football."

And within that division, the Bengals and the Steelers have hatched a genuine, circle-the-date rivalry--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 Cincinnati wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh grabbed one of the Steelers' beloved Terrible Towels and did something terrible with it. "He takes our Terrible Towel and cleans his shoes with it," said Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, as if Houshmandzadeh had scraped his boots with the Shroud of Turin. The Bengals counter that Ward started the bad blood six weeks earlier, when the Steelers beat the Bengals 27--13 in Cincinnati. After catching a four-yard touchdown pass, the Pittsburgh wideout mimicked his counterpart Chad Johnson's end-zone celebration. "Hines did my Riverdance," Johnson says, even more outraged than Porter.

It got better. In the aftermath of the playoff victory over the Bengals (when Palmer went down), Cowher led the Steelers in a boisterous locker room celebration that included mocking the Bengals' "Who Dey?" chant--every bit as revered in Cincinnati as the Terrible Towel is in Pittsburgh--and repeated the routine during the team's Super Bowl parade. Those performances were caught on tape and telecast more often than Deal or No Deal in both cities, to the delight of Steelers fans and the ire of Bengals supporters. "In retrospect," said Cowher last week, "maybe I wouldn't have done it with cameras around."

Pushing motivational buttons, Lewis showed the Bengals a tape of the performances on Wednesday of game week. "It's on them," said Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons, placing the onus for the mounting tension on the Steelers.

It was all too much for the volatile Porter, who before Sunday had 10 wins in 13 games against the Bengals. "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 to get 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 a sudden."

It's even more heated after Sunday. The week's emotion spilled onto the field, resulting in a fierce game best typified by Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark's crushing hit on Bengals wideout Chris Henry with Cincinnati leading 14--10 in the third quarter. Henry, a willowy 6'4", 200 pounds, had already caught two first-half touchdowns when Palmer led him too much on a skinny post. As Henry reached up with his right arm, Clark drilled him in the chest, popping the ball out of Henry's hand and into the arms of Steelers corner Ike Taylor. Henry was down for three minutes, stunned and windless. "How was it?" he said after the game, responding to a question about the hit. "It was big. And it pretty much sucked."

But for all the pregame hype and in-game talking, emotion didn't decide this contest. Rather, it was the performance of the two young quarterbacks: Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, the third-year Steel City icon who last year became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl; and Palmer, the fourth-year Heisman Trophy winner who threw 32 touchdown passes in 2005.

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