Palmer passed for just 146 yards. (AP photo)
Updated: 1 a.m.
Etched in his face and soaked in his words, the frustration ate at Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer.
In his other playoff game four years and a day ago, Palmer was carried from the field after his lone pass was a 66-yard completion. On Saturday, the Jets carried away his Super Bowl hopes by holding his starting wide receivers to 53 yards in their 24-14 AFC Wild Card victory over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
He wasn't characteristically crisp (18 of 36), but he didn't get a lot of help, either. The press-box count had at least three dropped third-down passes. Frankly, the passing game has been showing the same reel since the last three games of 2006, when the Bengals have scored 24 points just nine times.
The No. 1 stat that shows the receivers have had trouble getting open since Chris Henry's Nov. 8 broken arm: In that game they reached 18-for-25 scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Since then, they were 8-for-28, including 1-for-3 Saturday.
"It was an awkward game," Palmer said. "We just never got anything in rhythm. We never put together a really nice drive. We had some missed opportunities. From the turnover to the missed field goals to they had a couple of huge plays, awkward plays. A naked bootleg that went about 40, 50 yards. Just different things that happened to us in this game that hadn't happened all year. It's just very frustrating."
So awkward that running back Cedric Benson's franchise-best 169 yards rushing got wasted against a dare-you-to-throw Jets front. The Bengals could only respond with Palmer's 146 yards. How awkward? It was Benson's 10th 100-yard game with the Bengals and their first loss, and head coach Marvin Lewis knew he had seen his quarterback have one of those rare inaccurate days.
"We missed some throws," Lewis said. "We were high on some throws, particularly early on. It is not like him very often."
How awkward? The Cincinnati highlight of the game, Benson's 47-yard touchdown run, his longest run as a Bengal and the longest in club postseason history, drew the Bengals to within 21-14 with 11:04 left in the game. It came when Palmer checked out of a flea-flicker against a pass-defense front loaded to one side. He handed off over the right side and Benson got a great block from Caldwell working on a DB.
"Carson made a great call and we just stretched it," Benson said. "The defensive end widened, there was a lane and there was only one safety to beat. Once I got past them it was just a matter of me showing whether I had speed or not."
He had enough that when he knelt in the end zone he flashed back to the first Pittsburgh game, when his 23-yard TD run with 9:14 left in the game cut the Steelers lead to 20-15 in a game the Bengals won, 23-20 with 14 seconds left.
"Here we are, not scoring any points and we're down by quite a large margin and I get a nice run for a touchdown," Benson said. "I thought that's exactly what was going to happen. The offense got a great drive down the field in some of the spread looks, but we couldn't finish. We didn't get the field goal."
Palmer was also throwing to some banged-up guys. After wide receiver Laveranues Coles caught an 11-yard touchdown pass out of the slot to put the Bengals up, 7-0, midway through the first quarter, he injured his thumb but came back.
Then Coles left the game for good in the last five minutes after a blow to the head. But he still ended up as the leading receiver with six catches for 48 yards. Andre Caldwell, who started for the second straight week opposite wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and had 25 yards on two catches, played the second half hobbled with a sprained ankle. Caldwell told reporters if it was a regular-season game, he wouldn't have gone back in.
Palmer said he'll have surgery on his injured left thumb in the next few days. And, yes, he'll watch the New England-Baltimore game Sunday even though he was planning to watch it for other reasons.
"I was really looking forward to watching the games tomorrow to see who we would play," Palmer said. "I had kind of made my mind up that was going to happen. That's why this is so hard."
GRAHAM'S FUTURE: One of the big questions over the offseason is going to be if the last two kicks ever taken by the Bengals' most accurate field-goal kicker ever are going to be two missed chip shots in a playoff game.
Shayne Graham came into Saturday riding a streak of 12 straight field goals and 16 of his last 17 to secure his spot in fourth place of all-time accuracy at 85.22 percent. But with the Bengals trailing the Jets, 14-7, in the middle of the third quarter, Graham yanked a 35-yarder left. Then when the Bengals needed to make it a one-score game with 3:49 left, he sliced it right to end their comeback bid.
"There isn't anything you can say about that. When you miss the field goal, you miss the field goal," Lewis said. "It is a shame, and it killed us. Unfortunately, in this case, it is mostly a one-man operation, and that is the sad part of it. Shayne feels worse about it than anybody. Those points obviously make a big difference."
The Bengals designated Graham their franchise free agent this year, securing him with a one-year deal of $2.5 million. They can do it again next year, but will they? Throw in a miserable second-half kickoff that put the Jets at the 42 and they'll be mulling some options.
Graham's outing was juxtaposed against the clutch two-way duty of the Jets' Jay Feely. When punter Steve Weatherford was sidelined suddenly in pregame with an irregular heartbeat, Feely had to punt for the third time in his life.
He did it once in high school and once at Michigan and now once in the NFL playoffs. It wasn't pretty, but he shoved three of his seven punts inside the 20 and then did what Graham didn't and hit a red-zone field goal (from 20 yards) that made it a two-score game (24-14) with 5:47 left.
It was Graham who spotted Feely hurriedly coming back on the field after pregame warmups to get in some punts with the long snapper and he ran into the Bengals locker room with the news.
"I would have done the same thing," Feely said. "My first thought was, 'Oh crap.' You go out and try to do your best. That was definitely the most nervous I have been in the NFL, before that first punt.
"I ran out of the locker room and got a few in before the game. I felt more comfortable as it went on, but the whole time I just wanted to catch (the snap) and get it off ... there were no directional punts. We tried a little bit. I just wanted to catch (the snap) and get (the ball) off."
NO SURGERY FOR JEANTY: After three seasons in the CFL and after four seasons of grinding through injury in the NFL, SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty finally made it to a playoff start Saturday because Rey Maualuga broke his fibula against Kansas City Dec. 27.
But he never got it. On Saturday's opening kickoff, as running back Bernard Scott was taking off on a 56-yard return, Jeanty did the exact same thing and broke his fibula.
Maualuga and Jeanty are probably Cincinnati's two most physical run players. Next in line are probably defensive tackle Domata Peko, returning Saturday after a five-game absence, and safety Chris Crocker, returning after three games out. It may help to explain that after Jets running back Shonn Greene rung up a season-high 135 yards on the Bengals, the Bengals allowed four teams 100 yards rushing in the last five games after limiting teams to less than 100 in the previous eight games.
There were only two good things about Jeanty's broken leg. It's not the leg in which he has a 16-inch rod from another injury. And, like Maualuga, he doesn't need surgery.
"Horrible, man. Horrible. But that's football," Jeanty said. "It's one of those things. I just got hit from behind. You never see it coming."
Last season Jeanty's teammates voted him the Ed Block Courage Award and so his response was no surprise.
"But I don't need surgery, so I'll recoup in a couple of weeks," he said.
Brandon Johnson, who mostly plays WILL backer but knows all three spots, took Jeanty's place and played a marvelous game. He had four tackles, one for a loss, and two passes defensed. He was a major reason the Bengals had momentum in the first quarter, forcing two punts with a third-down pass defensed on Jets tight end Dustin Keller in the open field that had all the makings of a 25-yarder, and knocking down another third-down pass at the line.
"It's defensive sadness. I just saw Bam-Bam, Rey Maualuga, go down a couple of weeks ago," Johnson said. "The game didn't stop. As soon as I got on the field, they were blowing the whistle, so you have to snap out of it real quick."
Johnson said middle linebacker Dhani Jones and WILL linebacker Keith Rivers were a big help getting him lined up.
"Some of the calls I weren't really sure on. Some of them I were," he said. "We lost this game as a team and everybody has their share of bad plays and their share of errors. Big plays and turnovers. Big plays and turnovers."
CLASSY REX: It was an awkward night all the way around.
The Bengals have had to deal with loss twice during this season, but on Saturday night it was Jets coach Rex Ryan giving the game ball to his owner after Woody Johnson's 30-year-old daughter died suddenly earlier this week. Much like Lewis gave the game ball to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer after the Bengals Oct. 11 win in Baltimore following the sudden death of wife Vikki that week.
"We just wanted to support him. But, I think that there was a quiet calm especially after the game," said Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. "When it was over, Rex gave him the game ball. It was well deserved and we just felt it right there. He knew what this meant to him, how much this team means to him and how much his family means to him. It was a great moment for him in unfortunate circumstances, but we tried to make the best of it."
The Ocho had his own moment, choosing to honor late Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry by wearing a pair of orange gloves with a black No. 15 in the palms. Before he left the locker room Saturday, he looked at them and said, "I wish I could have finished it off for him," kissed them and threw them back on his locker shelf.