Wounded Bengals: The Injury That Changed the Course of Two Franchises

Samuel Bell JrSenior Analyst ISeptember 25, 2008

It was Sunday, Jan. 8, 2006 and the state of Ohio was abuzz. The Cincinnati Bengals had won the AFC North and were the third seed of the playoffs, just missing a first-round bye.

They didn't know how much that would matter.

The Bengals boasted an offense with the likes of WR trio Chad Johnson, T.J Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry, former USC standout QB Carson Palmer, and not to mention Rudi Johnson anchoring the ground attack.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis had finally started to deliver on what many thought were a Super Bowl-caliber team, and fans were excited about the potential the Bengals could return to prominence, not seen since the days of the "Ickey-shuffle."

Confident and ready, the Bengals stepped on the field believing in themselves and each other, and they felt that this game was theirs. They wanted to give their hometown fans a show and prove that their season was no fluke.

On the other hand, the Pittsburgh Steelers crawled into the playoffs as a sixth seed and were the underdog against the Bengals in the wild-card playoffs.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, in his second year, was quiet and confident. As a surprise emerging star from Miami of Ohio, Roethlisberger led his team to the playoffs when many didn't expect him to.

Playing at the Miami of Ohio, Ben was no stranger to obscurity. He showed his future potential in a successful rookie season and followed that with an even bigger second year.

Combined with do-it-all WR Hines Ward and future Hall-of-Fame RB Jerome Bettis in his last season, the Steelers were no walkovers, and they knew it.

What do playoff seedings matter anyway? It's all in the heart, and any team can defeat any other team on any given day. The Pittsburgh Steelers knew that, and the hype surrounding the NFL playoffs would be defined by one moment.

Who knew it would happen in this game?

Cincinnati had been a terrible franchise the last 14 seasons. They last saw the playoffs in 1990. The Ohio State University became the only football team that really mattered in Ohio, and the Bengals became an after-thought and laughingstock for many years.

That is, until the hiring of Marvin Lewis in 2003. With his arrival came new expectations and excitement around Bengal football, and the drafting of Carson Palmer really got the fans excited.

As the Bengals sat Palmer for the following season, current Detroit Lions QB Jon Kitna, Bengals QB at the time, fumbled and bumbled the Bengals to another bad season. Once the trio of Carson Palmer, T.J Houshmandzadeh, and Chad Johnson stepped on the field, things changed.

This high-powered offense led the Bengals to a 11-5 record and first place in the division, and suddenly the Bengals went from cellar-dwellers to the top of the crop.

With their stars all young, the Bengals were thinking they had time and a small dynasty on their side. The 2005 NFL playoffs would have them singing to a different tune.

As the opening kickoff got this game underway, everything these teams had worked for would be determined in the next 60 minutes. If you're a Bengal or Bengals fan, that would take far less time than that.

On the Bengals' second offensive play of the game, Carson Palmer dropped back and went to load his arm for a deep ball down the left side of the field. As he released the football, Pittsburgh Steelers DL Kimo Von Oelhoffen came down at Palmer's knee and knocked him awkwardly to the ground.

As Carson Palmer twisted on the field, writhing in pain, the stadium became silent. It was like time took a break for a minute to figure out the extent of Palmer's injury.

One of those moments where, in your heart you knew what the result would be, but you refused to accept it, like when a girl you love suddenly leaves you. Nothing else matters at that very moment.

When Carson Palmer was carted off of the field that fateful day, several things laid in that cart with him. The Bengals' season and subsequently the seasons that would follow. Fans' hopes, Chad Johnson's sanity, and potentially Marvin Lewis' job.

At least he completed the pass for 66-yards to Chris Henry.

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Jon Kitna came into the game in relief of Carson Palmer, but as BB King once said it, "The Thrill Is Gone."

It was that day, as the Bengals squandered a 10-0 lead by being outscored 31-7 after that, losing the game 31-17. Someone had held down the Bengals and stepped on their stomachs, and the air was let out of them and their fans.

Meanwhile, Carson Palmer's prognosis was not good on that injured knee. Palmer had torn both his ACL and MCL, and also had meniscus and cartilage damage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers went on to defeat the Indianapolis Colts, the Denver Broncos, and the Seattle Seahawks on their way to a Super Bowl XL win, 21-10.

WR Hines Ward was the MVP, and the Steelers shocked the world by defying odds, winning the championship from the sixth and final seed. Ben Roethlisberger officially became a rock star, and history had been made.

Who knew a knee could impact a situation so much?

Palmer's knee became one of the most legendary injuries in sport, and many questioned whether the Steelers would have won had Palmer not went down. After all, he did just complete a 66-yard bomb and seemed primed to continue.

There's no doubt in many minds that the Bengals would have won that game. Instead, they lose their QB and their mindset in a 20-second clip.

As Palmer fought to rehabilitate and return to full strength, his following season didn't start quite as well. He made a good return from his injury but didn't seem to look like the same Carson Palmer.

It wasn't until half the season passed in which Palmer appeared to get comfortable in the pocket again. After that point, his season individually looked to be rebounding, as the Bengals were competitive in every game, and Palmer looked like himself again.

He even made the Pro Bowl and walked away with MVP honors. Yet and still, the Bengals finished just 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

The following season would be even worse, as Palmer threw 20 interceptions and the Bengals finished with a losing record. Players were being arrested left and right, and WR Chad Ocho Cinco or Johnson was causing morale issues.

Unfortunately, the Bengals were falling apart and that once-feared trio was struggling to produce wins. Rudi Johnson was released, and amidst legal problems, WR Chris Henry was suspended, released, and then re-signed.

LB Odell Thurman, once very promising, was released while dealing with substance-abuse problems and twice suspended by the league. LB David Pollack suffered a career-ending injury, and the defense couldn't stop a team of Auntie's.

While the Bengals frayed at the edges following that 2005 playoff game, the Steelers flourished. Ben Roethlisberger had a tumultuous season in 2006, nearly losing his life in a motorcycle accident and undergoing an emergency appendectomy.

Refusing to fall apart, Roethlisberger returned the following season and rectified the Steelers' 8-8 struggle with a 10-6 campaign, making the playoffs and just losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars 31-29 in the wild-card playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger had a great year and made the Pro Bowl, and he fully recovered from his previous misfortunes.

In 2008, the Steelers have gotten off to a 2-1 start while the Bengals look lost in earning a 0-3 record, and look to again be heading down the road of a losing season.

The Cincinnati Bengals have seemed to be a franchise stuck in the mud for quite some time.

Every dog has their day, and the Bengals had theirs in 2005. Unfortunately for them, that day was one in which their star QB lost his knee and state of mind.

Some people say that fate has no explanation or obvious reason.

Nobody knows that more than the fans of the Cincinnati Bengals, who watched their hopes lie hopelessly on the turf Jan. 8, 2006, and the celebration of the team that defeated them.

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