Cincinnati is new to this game
Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
CINCINNATI - For nine excruciating years, offensive tackle Willie Anderson went home in January, fired up the grill, watched the NFL playoffs and fantasized about getting there someday.
Turns out, fantasy is nothing like reality.
The Cincinnati Bengals are back in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, feeling wholly out of place. Not even the weather is following the script - above-average temperatures leading up to the first-round game today against Pittsburgh.
"It's a new feeling for us," said Anderson, who has lost 99 games in 10 Cincinnati seasons. "I always thought it would be freezing and zero degrees right now. That's how I always pictured the week of a playoff game in Cincinnati."
Their fans did, too. After 15 years without so much as one winning record, they were convinced that someplace would have to freeze over before the Bengals made the playoffs. When they finally made it, they got another surreal surprise.
The one team that dominated the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium this season is coming back, looking to do it again. The Steelers (11-5) had some of their best moments during a 27-13 victory on Oct. 23 - a season-high 221 yards on the ground, an emphatic win over an upstart rival.
The Bengals won a 38-31 shootout in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4 - Ben Roethlisberger's first game back from injuries - to essentially win the AFC North title. They even crowed a little bit afterward about how the Steelers were as yesterday as black-and-white television.
The Bengals never thought they'd be playing them again so soon, with so much at stake - and with so much black-and-gold motivation to make them pay.
"They won our division. It's redemption time," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "We get that opportunity, and we feel good because we won in Cincinnati."
That's not all that the Steelers have in their favor. The two cities share a river, but the two teams are in their own worlds when it comes to playing games like this one. The Steelers know what to expect; the Bengals don't have a clue.
Only 13 Bengals have been to the playoffs, all with other teams. The rest have to learn the hard way.
"We've never been in this situation, a lot of guys on the team," receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "I don't know how I'm going to react, how I'm going to feel lining up in warmups and stretching."
Not the Steelers. Been there, won that.
Forty of them have been to the playoffs as Steelers, so they know what it's all about. No one appreciates the value of playoff experience better than Roethlisberger, who led the Steelers to a 15-1 finish as a rookie last year, then crumbled during a 41-27 loss to New England in the AFC title game.
The playoff pressure got to him.
"I was worn down," said Roethlisberger, who forced passes and threw three interceptions. "When you get to that point in the season, you have to be on top of your game. I felt like I was falling off the table. The speed was so much faster that the mistakes are magnified."
Now, Carson Palmer gets to find out. The Bengals quarterback made the Pro Bowl in only his second season as a starter, leading the NFL with 32 touchdown passes and a 67.8 percent completion rate.
He's done far better than anyone expected at this point in his career. He's never experienced anything quite like what comes next, not even during his Heisman Trophy career at USC.
"You get the goose bumps going into this week on Monday and Tuesday," Palmer said. "You realize how big of a game it is and how big it is for this city and this organization."
With his Southern California cool, Palmer has handled everything with remarkable calm. He slightly strained his groin on his second-to-last play of a loss to Buffalo, then played only two series as a precaution last week in a loss at Kansas City that sent the Bengals (11-5) into the playoffs on a downward spiral - two bad losses after they clinched the division title in Detroit.
Coach Marvin Lewis responded by getting tough with his team. He put his team in pads at midweek and limited the media attention - receiver Chad Johnson couldn't even talk - to get everyone focused.
"I think there was a sense of, 'Wow, we're here!' in Detroit," Lewis said, referring to the division title. "Now we're on to something else. I think we were brought back to reality regardless of what happened, and that's good."
The new reality is that they have to beat an old rival, one with a playoff-sized chip on its shoulder.
"Just given the rivalry that we have - I know that to me is more important," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "We want to be the dominant team in our division, you know what I mean?"
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