As a millennial Bengals fan, reaching the playoffs is still a big deal. I remember the 90s — when a .500 season was a good year. I know Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton’s performance reputations in the playoffs. So all things considered, I haven’t exactly grown accustomed to my team playing in the postseason.
That said, I remember their post-season games vividly. I started watching the Bengals when I was 4 but they wouldn’t have a playoff appearance until I was 16. In all my life, I’ll never forget that game.
Carson Palmer had sat his rookie year behind veteran Jon Kitna — Kitna was the only quarterback in the league to take 100% of his teams’ snaps that year. The team drew criticism for sitting the Heisman Trophy winner but it all worked out because when Carson stepped under center in his sophomore season, he was ready! He led the Bengals to 8–8 in 2004, the same as their record the year before, but in 2005 led the Bengals to its first AFC North title, winning record, and playoff berth since 1990.
We ended up playing the Steelers. Ask anyone in Cincinnati how they feel about Pittsburgh and, as long as they aren’t apart of the Steeler Nation that finds its way into the cracks and crevices of every corner of the country somehow, they’ll be glad to share their disdain for the bumble bees. Prior to 2005, the sentiments towards Pittsburgh came from a place of envy and frustration. They were always competitive and seldom had off-the-field or character issues. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, we hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1990 when we lost in the Super Bowl and there were more arrests on the team than wins. In 2005, Cincinnati had a reason to dislike the Steelers, we were finally good enough to make waves in the playoffs and, even if temporarily, unseat the Steelers from the AFC North throne.
Our defense was exciting that year. That was the year both David Pollack and Odell Thurman led the defense as rookies out of Georgia. Big Ben completed a couple of passes in the opening drive and handed off to “Fast” Willie Parker but ended up punting after eight plays and 24 yards.
Out came the Bengals offense. Our weapons were as dangerous then as they are abundant now. No one could guard Ocho Cinco. TJ Houshmandzadeh knew how to complement Chad in the slot. Rudi Johnson had over 1,400 yards rushing. Rookie Chris Henry (RIP Slim) was running by and jumping over DBs with ease. And Carson was a bona fide Heisman quarterback. It was our year.
We handed off to Rudi the first play for a one yard gain. We broke the huddle for the next play as CBS showed the starting lineup graphics for the Bengals offense. Carson surveyed the defense and then took his place under center. Directly behind him was running back Chris Perry flanked by tight end/full back Matt Schoebel. Carson stepped back and sent Schoebel in motion to his left where he lined up just outside the tackle as a tight end, towards the bottom of the screen. Chad was alone at the very bottom of the screen and motioned to the referee as he stepped back off the line of scrimmage. At the top of the screen were Chris Henry on the far outside and TJ Houshmandzadeh in the slot inside him.
Carson hiked the ball and the Steelers only rushed four. Carson looked to his right where he found Chris Henry streaking down the field a solid two steps ahead of his defender. Sixty six yard completion. Paul Brown Stadium went nuts. I was jumping around like a mad man with my family at my grandmother’s house and then the TV cut to Palmer.
Crawling on the ground in pain, desperately gripping grass with a close up shot on “Palmer 9” on his back, our quarterback was down. Responsibly, CBS showed the replay from the sideline and it showed a Steeler falling into Palmer’s leg and knocking him down. Then they showed the back angle. From behind, you could see former Bengal Kimo Von Oelhoffen dive at the side of Carson’s knee and bend in a way that it was clear that he may not get up. After a few minutes, a cart arrived on the field to take Carson to the locker room.
As if matters couldn’t have been worse at this point, Chris Henry completed the 66 yard play but also sustained a knee injury on the tackle which removed him from the game. Forced to rely on backup Jon Kitna who had already mentored and been usurped by Palmer, tanks of hope fueling the spirit of Bengals fans everywhere had already been emptied. I don’t even remember what happened after that. Second play on offense. It resulted in a torn ACL for Palmer and the Steelers won the game 31–17 and went on to beat the Seahawks 21–10 in Super Bowl XL.
Whether the play was dirty or not will be debated amongst Bengals and Steelers fans for years but either way, it was merely more fuel to the fire of hatred towards the Steelers. It didn’t help that they went on to win it all.
We now know that the Bengals and Steelers will match up this weekend again in Cincinnati for an AFC Wild Card game. The Bengals have evened the score during the regular season of late but while us fans recall the last playoff meeting as a nightmare we’d rather forget, the players don’t. There are no players still on the roster that played on that team. In fact, unless they’ve been around longer than 5 years, all they know is the Bengals making the playoffs. Hopefully that’s enough to get them over the playoff hump because I can’t handle another devastating loss to the Steelers and I’m not sure Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton’s reputations can either.