Two weeks ago I discussed a game that changed the face of the Steelers vs. Bengals series forever and helped to kick-start a 20 year run of Pittsburgh essentially “owning” Cincinnati. Yet over the last 20 years, there had to have been a game/era where Cincinnati appeared to have closed the gap in the rivalry right? Indeed.
That’s right folks, I’ll be doing a discussion about the 2005/2006 A.F.C. Wild Card Game that saw the Steelers and Bengals duke it out at Paul Brown Stadium. So today I not only want to do my normal discussion of the game itself and my personal anecdotes from watching it, but I also want to discuss the importance of this game to the rivalry and what “almost” could-have been had certain events not transpired. So hit that “Continue Reading” button and let’s get started shall we:
2005 was a season that I will never forget as a Steelers fan. I mean it’s unforgettable because the Steelers made a miraculous run to a Super Bowl title (the first I’ve been alive to see). Yet another big reason that particular season will always stick with me is the fact that the 2005 season was the first one that I watched when I lived in Hawai’i. For the first time in my life, I was away from both my Mom and her family, all of whom are big Steelers fans.
Luckily, due to the internet, calls home, and sports bars, I was able to keep up with all of the games and all the going’s-on during the Fall and Winter. Personally, I loved waking up (or staying up after a night of drinking) at 7 A.M. to watch an East Coast football game. It was a great way to start off a Sunday, and the late games started at like 2 in the afternoon. I could spend the entire night doing homework I didn’t finish or hanging out with friends. God Bless Hawai’i.
Tale of Two Teams:
Anyways, the 2005 Steelers were a nice mix of young and old that had high expectations entering the season after their Rookie QB Big Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 took them to the A.F.C. Championship Game. While they started 7-2, the Steelers hit a mid-season 3 game skid and stood at 7-5 on the outside looking in of the Playoffs after a horrendous 38-31 home loss to Cincinnati that essentially handed the Bengals the A.F.C. North Title. I remember not being worried though because I had faith that both San Diego and Kansas City would eventually screw themselves out of playoff contention. Luckily, I was right and I also knew that the Steelers (who won their last 4 regular season games just to earn the 6th and final seed) were a much better team than their 6th seed status indicated.
In 2005, the upstart Bengals also a lot to be confident about. They had a Pro Bowl QB in Carson Palmer, two talented WR’s in the form of the pass catcher formerly known as Chad Johnson, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and a great running game led by a stout O-Line and RB Rudi Johnson. While the Bengals’ Defense wasn’t overly talented by any means, they were ball-hawking and forced numerous turnovers that their talented Offense capitalized on all season.
I was stoked to watch the game, because I would be in the comfort of my dorm-room all by myself because many students hadn’t moved back in yet for Spring Classes. While feeling a tad lonesome, I figured watching the game would be a great way to unwind before my buddies got back from their respective cities that night.
A.F.C. Wild Card
January 8th, 2006
“Kimo’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World”
Steelers 31 – Bengals 17
The game itself started pretty terribly if you were a Steelers fan. The Offense could do nothing in terms of moving the ball on their first possession but still got the ball close to the midfield stripe. Luckily, Chris Gardocki got off a solid punt that pinned Cincinnati deep inside their own territory and left them at their own 4 yard line. After a Rudi Johnson run netted 1 yard, Carson Palmer took a deep drop on 2nd Down and heaved a pass downfield to the late WR Chris Henry………..
When Palmer threw the pass and Henry streaked down the sideline I just sat aghast looking at my television screen. The play netted 66 yards, and I couldn’t believe that the Steelers could allow such a play to take place. Undeterred yet still shocked, I reached for my bag of Doritos and shrugged my shoulders………..
Then, in what seemed like a split-second, I heard the crowd becoming audible and a chorus of boos raining down. I figured that since the Stadium was littered with Steelers fans (as always) that they were booing the outcome of the play. Then I saw Bengals players hollering and causing a scene and pointing towards the Steelers. Then CBS brought the aftermath of the play into full view………..
Laying on the field was the $90 million dollar man (The Bengals had just signed Palmer to a $90 million dollar contract through the 2014 season), writhing in pain! As happy as I was in that moment that Cincinnati’s best player was going to be out for the rest of the game, I quickly felt sorry for the poor guy when I saw the replay. Completely unintentionally, Palmer’s knee got smashed from his blind-side by Steelers’ DE and former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen.
I had taken a Sports Medicine class in High School, and judging by the hit, I knew it was not good. I figured it would probably just be an MCL tear because of the region of the knee where Palmer was hit and the direction that von Oelhoffen was going. At the time I assumed that Palmer would be out for the rest of the game and an extended period of the off-season. But the way that Palmer was squirming on the field, I knew that something else had to be wrong. I didn’t know exactly how bad it was until after the game, but how Palmer even played in the Bengals’ season opener in 2006 was nothing short of a medical/recovery miracle.
Palmer not only tore his MCL, but he tore both his ACL and patellar tendon, and even dislocated his kneecap! As a Steelers fan I was pleased because I knew there was no way that Jon Kitna could lead the Bengals to a victory. So I sat back in my dorm room chair thinking that the game was over and the Steelers would waltz into Indianapolis for the following week’s game.
Yet as a human being, and former athlete, I was completely speechless and felt terrible for Palmer. I always wish for the opposition’s QB to get his bell-rung all day and have it affect his play mentally/physically, but possible career-ending injuries are where I draw the line, and I’ll never forget just sitting in silence until Palmer was carted off the field. In the blink of an eye, what seemed like a game the Bengals could win and reverse their terrible fortunes of the past decade and a half vanished into thin air.
To their credit, Cincinnati fought hard the rest of the 1st Half. Kitna went right to work and the Bengals drew first blood on a 23 yard Shayne Graham Field Goal. Kudos must go to Pittsburgh’s Defense however because they held firm enough to limit the Bengals to 3 in a situation that should have been an easy 6 on a 9 play 84 yard drive.
After the Steelers’ next drive went nowhere again, Cincinnati stayed on the attack. Kitna apparently channeled his inner Carson Palmer because he drove Cincinnati right down the field. Then at the 20 yard line Rudi Johnson just took off and crossed the Goal Line to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead with just over a minute left in the 1st Quarter.
I’ve talked to many Steelers fans who remember this game and each and every one that I’ve talked to said that after Johnson’s TD, they were really worried. For me, it always makes me laugh, because I’m usually the guy fretting over trap games and the Steelers playing down to their competition. But on that fine Sunday in my Manoa dorm room, I just sat back and relaxed.
Without Palmer I figured Cincinnati would play simply on adrenaline, and that their fired-up attitude would fade once the Steelers got going. All the Steelers needed to do was weather the storm, and get their Offense back on track. And like he had done so many times in his first 2 seasons, Big Ben shrugged off the 10-0 deficit and got the Steelers’ Offense rolling.
On a scoring play that worked to perfection, Ben dumped a screen pass to his RB Willie Parker who waltzed into the end zone from 19 yards out with literally nobody around him. The Steelers’ O-Line barely had to block anybody because Parker was standing by himself. An efficient 8 play 60 yard drive that lasted just under 3 minutes had brought the Steelers back, and all I kept thinking to myself was “How the Hell is Cincinnati going to screw this up?”
At 10-7, I just relaxed in my chair, grabbed a drink from my mini-fridge and awaited a Bengals collapse. Much to my chagrin, Cincinnati just didn’t go away. And with a little help from the officials, Cincinnati added to their lead. Using backup RB and 3rd Down Back Chris Perry, Kitna managed to move the Bengals deep into Steeler territory after KR Tab Perry burned the Steelers’ Kickoff Coverage Unit for a big gain near midfield.
I’ll never forget the bone-headed plays made by the Steelers’ Defenders when Cincinnati appeared to be stopped in the Red Zone. An Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty on Troy Polamalu and an Illegal Contact Penalty on James Farrior gave the Cincinnati Offense one too many chances, and Kitna capitalized. On a 7 yard strike to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Kitna capped off the 14 play 57 yard drive that took over half of the 2nd Quarter and put Cincinnati in front 17-7.
Still, with 6 minutes left in the Half, I knew that the 2005 Steelers wouldn’t quit. They had to win their last 4 games to just get into the Playoffs. Down by 10 in the middle of the 2nd Quarter to a team without its Pro Bowl QB was child’s play.
Ben went back to work, and fired a 54 yard strike down the left sideline to WR Cedrick Wilson. It was funny, because after a lackluster regular season, Wilson suddenly stepped his game up in the Playoffs. But I’ll save his best play from this game for later. A 15 yard pass to Antwaan Randle El and a 1 yard run by Jerome Bettis put the ball at the Bengals’ 5 yard line.
Then on a patented Whisenhunt Goal Line pass play, Ben found his favorite target Hines Ward in the end zone for the score from 5 yards out. I’ll never forget how huge that TD was, because the Steelers had closed the gap to 17-14, and Cincinnati had failed to build an insurmountable lead in the absence of their best player.
Moreover, I even remember telling myself that if the score stood at 17-14 at Half Time (It did, both teams didn’t score on their last possessions of the Half), the Steelers had the Bengals right where they wanted them.
All the Steelers would need is of course Cincinnati to “Bungle It Up” on their opening possession of the 2nd Half. Thankfully, despite their fancy 11-5 record and 1st Division Title in 14 seasons, the “Bungles” were the same old “Bungles” without Carson Palmer that day.