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Even after a tough playoff defeat, NFL players often root for the team that eliminated them. Palmer looked forward only to the Steelers' demise, and when it failed to come, week after excruciating week, his frustration increased. The 2002 Heisman Trophy winner flashed back to his days at USC, when the Trojans had lost eight consecutive games to UCLA and were greeted across L.A. with billboards reading eight straight, ain't it great? To him, Pittsburgh's One for the Thumb rallying cry became the equivalent, or worse, a middle-finger salute. "I hate them," Palmer says of the Steelers. "I hate them even more than I hate UCLA. Yeah, it's because I'm jealous and I want what they have. I guess I'm just not that evolved."
Palmer believes that Pittsburgh came into Cincinnati in January and stole the glory that was rightfully his. The AFC North rivals split their regular-season series in 2005, each winning on the other's turf. Both finished 11-5, the Bengals taking the North on the strength of their division record and the Steelers sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card to set up the rubber match.
On the Bengals' second play from scrimmage, with the ball on their own 12-yard line, Palmer confidently called the play sent in from offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski--999 Seam, which would send three receivers and the tight end running vertical patterns. The quarterback was expecting a Cover Two defense, with the two corners up and the two safeties in deep protection; instead, the Steelers lined up in Quarters, with four defensive backs spread evenly across the field. To the right, wide receiver Chris Henry was opposite veteran Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend. Too good to be true, Palmer thought as he stood over center. Henry can run by any corner--and certainly by this guy.
Even as the pass left his hand, Palmer knew it would be completed. He remembers seeing Henry catch the ball and race down the sideline as 65,870 fans celebrated madly. But having watched the replay at least 50 times, he knows this memory is an illusion. The hit on his knee came at least a second before Henry made the catch.
As Palmer released the ball, Kimo von Oelhoffen, the Steelers' 300-plus-pound defensive end, rolled and drove his shoulder into Palmer's left leg. The crowd was still roaring as Palmer twisted awkwardly and crumpled to the turf on his own five-yard line. Soon all eyes turned from Henry back to Palmer, and the stadium fell silent as the Bengals' trainers rushed onto the field.
Shaelyn saw it all. She bolted from her luxury box to the locker room. When she got to Carson, he was despondent. He'd wept once before in front of her, but nothing like this. "I thought it was because he was in so much pain," Shaelyn says, "but it wasn't. It was the emotion."
A team doctor examined the knee and told Carson that both the ACL and the MCL were torn. To confirm the diagnosis, Palmer was sent to the special medical facility underneath Paul Brown Stadium and into the claustrophobic loneliness of an MRI tube. He was given a pair of headphones and allowed to listen to the game. The announcers kept saying they weren't sure if he'd return. That drove him crazy: They should know how badly I'm hurt.
His teammates knew, and several of them jawed at Von Oelhoffen, believing his hit had been dirty. Yet Palmer insists he's not mad at the lineman (who's now with the New York Jets). "You get hit in weird positions all the time playing quarterback," Palmer says. "In the end I felt very fortunate to have played as long as I did and avoided surgery to that point. It's just part of the game. It's part of life."
The problem was, Palmer's life kept getting worse over the next few weeks, as the Steelers scored improbable road victories at Indianapolis and Denver and beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Each weekend he would sit on his couch in Newport Beach, Calif., crutches at his side, and talk to Kitna by phone before the game, the quarterbacks reassuring each other that Pittsburgh's elimination was imminent. Inevitably, Palmer would be back on with Kitna a few hours later, screaming, "Can you believe this?"
When Palmer vented to Lewis, the coach told him it was a good lesson for the Bengals to see another AFC North team raise its level of play. So, says Palmer, "I decided to take that approach. About five minutes into the Super Bowl, I thought, You know what? This approach sucks."