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."
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
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
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
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.