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Without Palmer, Bengals no match for Steelers

CINCINNATI -- The sky was falling on the Bengals in their first playoff game since 1990.

Angela Simons, a Bengals fan, suffered a large cut to her head when a heavy sheet of metal came off the National City Bank Building and struck her during her walk to Sunday's game. Two plays into Carson Palmer's first playoff game, Bengals guard Eric Steinbach blocked Steelers defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen into Palmer's lower left leg, ripping his ACL and his MCL.The Bengals' franchise quarterback was out of the game and suddenly a question mark to be ready for training camp.

Though the Bengals put up a good fight for a half, their playoff inexperience, coupled with the devastation of losing Palmer, caught up to them in the second half. The Steelers rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second quarter to blow away the Bengals 31-17. Though many Steelers players felt bad for Palmer, they didn't feel bad for the Bengals, who have suddenly become their most bitter rival in the AFC North.

"There is a lot of little stuff they did," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said about the Steelers disdain for the Bengals. "You have T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiping his feet with the Terrible Towel. The whole bib thing [with Chad Johnson wearing the Terrible Towel as a bib to catch crumbs]. You kinda get ahead of yourself. They haven't been in the playoffs. They don't know what it takes. They proved it today."

Bengals fans' emotions went from elation to despair on Palmer's second play of the game. Palmer rifled a 66-yard completion down the right sideline to rookie Chris Henry. After he released the ball, Steinbach's block pushed von Oelhoffen toward Palmer's left leg. Palmer's left knee buckled and popped upon impact.

The crowd went silent. The Bengals turned bitter. Halfback Chris Perry came onto the field minutes later to challenge von Oelhoffen. Some players thought the hit was a cheap shot, and so did the fans. Palmer left the field on a cart. After the half, it was announced he tore the ACL and would be out until next season's training camp.

"I heard it pop," von Oelhoffen said. "The ACL is a bad one. It affected me a little bit. I got a lot of respect for that team and Carson Palmer. You never want to see that happen to anyone."

Coincidentally, Palmer and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talked about the knee brace that Palmer wears on his left knee before the game.

"He was saying to wear the knee brace on that knee," Roethlisberger said. "He said you need to wear it, and that was the knee that got hurt. Like I said, my thoughts and prayers are with him."

Palmer is the Bengals' franchise. He's a Pro Bowl quarterback, and he was making the first of what could be many playoff starts. Everything in the offense revolves around him. A third of the time, he's running a no-huddle offense and calling plays at the line of scrimmage. Like Roethlisberger, Palmer has the ability to rifle long completions.

His day seemingly started great with a 66-yard completion, but it ended with a pop.

"I knew right away that it was bad," Palmer said. "I felt my whole knee pop. 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."

For a while, the Bengals fought the good fight. Jon Kitna came off the bench and finished what Palmer started by taking the Bengals to the Steelers 5-yard line and getting a 23-yard field goal. Kitna drove the Bengals 76 yards on the next possession and watched Rudi Johnson run 20 yards for a touchdown, giving the Bengals a 10-0 lead. A 7-yard touchdown pass to Housmandzadeh gave the Bengals a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.

Pretty soon, though, it started to show that this was the Bengals' first playoff game since 1990. The Steelers are a seasoned playoff team, and even though he's in just his second season, Roethlisberger is a seasoned playoff quarterback. He settled down an offense which started the game jumpy with false starts and a few mental mistakes.

Before long, the Steelers were mixing the runs with the passes and took control of the game. After Houshmandzadeh's touchdown, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 76 yards in six plays and hit Hines Ward with a 5-yard touchdown pass. He didn't panic. A year ago against the Patriots, he did, throwing interceptions that the Steelers couldn't recover from.

"It's experience," Cowher said. "He's been there. It's not a case of having to do too much and take too much on his shoulders. He did a nice job of stepping and getting out of the pocket and hitting check downs. That's the thing, it's his composure. He's aware of what's going on and does a good job of being the leader that he is."

After a shaky first half, Cowher was happy to only trail 17-14. He could see the defense was revving up. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau started blitzing more, which got Kitna out of rhythm.

In the second half, it was the Bengals -- the team without the playoff experience -- that was making the mistakes. Despite being at home, Bengals offensive players were getting false start penalties. Deep snapper Brad St. Louis blew a 33-yard field goal by snapping the ball over Shayne Graham's head.

Roethlisberger responded with a 66-yard touchdown drive to put the Steelers ahead 21-17. With the lead, the Steelers' blitz was relentless. Kitna had no time to sit in the pocket and throw. Receivers weren't open. After hitting six of his first seven passes, Kitna misfired on 15 of his next 33 passes. The Bengals were doomed.

The final blow was embarrassing to the Bengals. On a third-and-3 at the Bengals 43, Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt called a trick play. Antwaan Randle El moved next to Roethlisberger and took a direct snap from center. He scrambled to his right and then fired the ball across the field to Roethlisberger.

The Bengals secondary rushed in a panic toward Roethlisberger. Wide receivers Cedrick Wilson and Ward were wide open with no defender within 15 yards. Wilson caught the easy 43-yard touchdown to put the Steelers up 28-17 late in the third quarter.

"We've been repping that play for about two months," Cowher said. "We repped it this week and walked through it on Saturday. We've had it in there for a while, and Whiz [Ken Whisenhunt] made a great call in the perfect situation. We've got a lot of things and still have some more left. We're at the point now where there is no tomorrow. It was just a good call."

The Steelers should have had another touchdown on a trick play. Jerome Bettis misfired what could have been a touchdown pass on a halfback option.

It was a chippy game from the start. After numerous plays, players from both teams pushed and shoved each other. The trash talking was almost out of control at times. The Steelers thought the Bengals were too excited about making the playoffs and being considered an up-and-coming team.

In the locker room, the Steelers twisted the Bengals "Who Dey" cheer.

"We called it 'We Dey,'" Ward said. "We Dey put their ass out of the tournament. It was a great day today."

Porter remembered Chad Johnson saying that the torch had been passed in the AFC North when the Bengals beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh Dec. 4. He remembers Johnson saying the change was like going from black-and-white television to color TV.

"I'm going to send him the new plasma black-and-white TV," Porter said. "Hopefully, he's going to get the chance to watch us in our playoff game in Indianapolis."

Even in his moment of despair, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis tried to paint a better picture in light of the circumstances. Palmer blew out his knee. Chris Henry suffered a knee injury. The Bengals fell apart in the second half.

"It's unfortunate," Lewis said. "We're not going to sit here and baby and cry like their quarterback did."

Lewis was taking a shot at a Roethlisberger comment made earlier this year about low hits to his knee. Face it, these guys don't like each other. Now, Lewis has to get Palmer through a tough offseason of rehab, and get his team ready to fight again next year.

Yep, the sky was falling in Cincinnati on Sunday.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.