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Without Palmer, Bengals struggle, fall to Steelers

CINCINNATI (ESPN.com news services) -- Carson Palmer stood his ground and held the
ball an extra second, waiting for rookie Chris Henry to run past a
defender and get open.

That one second changed everything.

Steelers nose tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen dived at Palmer on his
first pass Sunday, hitting Palmer at the knee and knocking the Pro
Bowl quarterback out of the game with two torn ligaments.

Pittsburgh took advantage of his absence, harassing backup Jon
Kitna and rolling to a 31-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals
that set up a rematch with the AFC's top team.

The Steelers (12-5) will play in Indianapolis next Sunday, a
chance to show how far they've come in the past month. Pittsburgh
lost at the RCA Dome 26-7 on Nov. 28, when coach Bill Cowher
started the second half with a failed onside kick that seemed to be
a sign of desperation.

"We're the underdogs going into their place," said Ben
Roethlisberger, who threw three touchdown passes. "Now we get to
see what we can do."

Defending Super Bowl champion New England will play in Denver on
Saturday night.

The Bengals (11-6) will spend an offseason reliving the play
that effectively scuttled their first playoff appearance in 15
years -- and could have a longer-lasting impact. Palmer tore the
anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his knee, injuries that require surgery and
months of tough rehabilitation.

However, medical personnel have said that because both ligament injuries were "clean tears," recovery is expected to be somewhat less problematic than in some past torn ligament cases regarding athletes.

Palmer is expected to undergo surgery to repair the two ligaments in the coming days.

"I was really upset," receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "Not
because of the fact we lost him. He's young and he's got to go
through so much now tearing his knee. It's just sad for that to
happen. He was playing great."

The Bengals were initially angered and inspired by the injury,
but the emotion lasted only so long. They faded during the third
quarter, when they started bungling and the Steelers acted like
they'd been to the playoffs before.

"We had that letdown, we didn't get that (second-half) field
goal and it kind of deflated us," said Kitna, who took over for
Palmer and spent most of his time scrambling. "We never recovered
from that."

Pittsburgh was in jeopardy of not making the playoffs after a
38-31 loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field effectively gave
Cincinnati the AFC North title. The Steelers won their last four to
get in as a wild card.

In his second playoff go-round, Roethlisberger was coolly
efficient -- 14-of-19 for 208 yards and three touchdowns without an
interception, a vast improvement over his shaky rookie postseason.

"Last year, everything was new to Ben," said receiver Hines
Ward, who had a 5-yard touchdown catch. "Tonight, he was pretty
crisp. The intangibles that he brings, I like a lot."

The crowd of 65,870 erupted, then went sickeningly silent on the
Bengals' first pass play -- one that went down as the longest in
Cincinnati playoff history, and the costliest.

Palmer held onto the ball long enough to let Henry beat a
defender down the right sideline for a 66-yard catch. As the ball
left Palmer's hand, a falling von Oelhoffen's shoulder drove into the
quarterback's left knee.

"I knew right away that it was bad," said Palmer, who was on
crutches after the game. "I felt my whole knee pop. I didn't feel
a lot of pain. It was just a sickening feeling because I knew what
it was and that my season was over."

Even though Palmer wears a protective brace, his knee bowed
inward as it was hit. He had to be taken off on a cart.

"You watch it happen, my thoughts and prayers go out to
Carson," Roethlisberger said. "You could see Kimo was stumbling
going down. He's not that kind of player. Carson's a great player.
Any time you lose a great player like him, it's devastating."

Several Bengals yelled at von Oelhoffen, who spent his first six
seasons in Cincinnati and still counts some of the Bengals as
friends.

"Guys were infuriated," right tackle Willie Anderson said.
"But I know him. He's not a dirty player. His momentum just kept
him going into Carson. It wasn't a dirty play."

The nose tackle explained himself on the field.

"They had every right to be upset. They lost their best
player," he said. "I hope Carson gets better. My apologies to him
and his family.

"I was worried about Carson. That kid deserved to play this
game."

Now, it was up to Palmer's mentor to get it done. He couldn't.

Kitna led the Bengals to an 8-8 finish in coach Marvin Lewis'
first season, then took a back seat to Palmer the last two seasons.
He played sparingly this season and was understandably rusty in a
37-3 loss to Kansas City last week.

Kitna, one of only 13 Bengals with playoff experience, finished
24-of-40 for 197 yards with two interceptions and four sacks. He
kept the Bengals in it until their inexperience and lack of a Pro
Bowl quarterback started to show in the third quarter.

First, the Bengals botched a field goal attempt because of a
high snap. Then, Kitna knocked the ball out of his own hand while
scrambling, scuttling a drive. Finally, a shanked 30-yard punt --
something out of the old Bungles days -- put the Steelers in
position to take control.

Three plays later, they used a little sleight-of-snap to do just
that.

Antwaan Randle El took a direct snap in front of Roethlisberger,
ran to his right, turned and threw the ball back to the
quarterback. Cedrick Wilson was 10 yards beyond the confused
coverage for his 43-yard touchdown catch that put the Steelers up
28-17.

That was it.

Game Notes
Ward has caught a touchdown pass in each of his last five
playoff games. ... Pittsburgh has won seven of its last nine
against Cincinnati and 10 of its last 13. The Steelers have won
their last five games at Paul Brown Stadium. ... It was the
Steelers' first road win in the playoffs since 1989. They had been
0-3 on the road under Cowher. Overall, they're 9-9 in the playoffs
under their head coach. ... Henry hurt his right knee on the long
pass, then aggravated it a few plays later and had to be helped off
the field. He was on crutches in the second half.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.