BENGALS GAMEDAY: Photos, analysis, video highlights, stats* * *
Updated: 10:40 a.m.
Instead Shayne Graham's missed 39-yarder with eight seconds left in regulation may be the biggest - not to mention shocking - miss the team has ever endured.
Stretching back to last season and 29 straight kicks, Graham, the NFL's most accurate active kicker, had drilled everything inside 40 yards.
When quarterback Carson Palmer did everything but put the ball through the uprights with his spot ("I couldn't have asked for better position," Graham said.), Graham jogged on to the field "with a relaxed smile on my face," and a record of 38-for-39 from inside 40 over the last two years.
But from Tampa Bay to San Diego to Denver, this has been the season of the missed opportunity and Graham stuck to the script by slicing it right.
The miss didn't land until nearly four hours later, when San Francisco kicked an overtime winner to knock Denver out of the playoffs in the same sickening fashion Graham's would have put the Bengals in.
Graham was so sure it was good even after he kicked it and watched it that he raised his arms before putting them down in disbelief.
"Two highs and lows right there," Graham said. "Two completely opposite emotions at the north and south poles. I'm sure if you had zoomed in on my face it was one of surprise."
Talk about dream scenarios. Graham, along with snapper Brad St. Louis, holder Kyle Larson, and special teams coach Darrin Simmons had hoped for this moment ever since St. Louis' high snap on last Sunday's extra point with 41 seconds left cost the Bengals overtime in Denver.
Simmons even told Graham this week that this would be the game this season. Just like Miami and Baltimore in 2004 and Cleveland in 2005 when his last-second kicks gave them wins.
"It was just shy of 40 yards. That's the dream," Graham said. "That's where you want to be. I wanted to be kicking to win the game against Pittsburgh. ...I felt so confident ... it just didn't happen."
There were no excuses. Graham had drilled a 34-yarder for his 17th straight this season inside 40 to put the Bengals on the board late in the first half. That was before the heavy rains came, but he said that wasn't a problem. He said the field was in good shape and it was a perfect snap and hold.
Now he knows what lies ahead for the next year.
"It's a bad taste in everyone's mouth," Graham said. "A lot of orange and black aren't happy now. It's just a feeling no one wants to remember. I'm sure people are going to ask the question until we get that first game out of the way next year."
Graham indicated that Steelers coach Bill Cowher calling timeout didn't have an impact. Cowher seemed to just want to match what Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis did a minute earlier to Steelers kicker Jeff Reed.
Earlier in the season, Lewis called a timeout to freeze the man who is just behind Graham on the accuracy list, the Ravens' Matt Stover, and Stover obliged with a 29-yarder yanked left.
"That was a weird series of events down there," Cowher said. "I love icing kickers. That was the first time it actually worked."
Henry came up huge with a career day of 124 yards on just four catches, including an electrifying 66-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the fourth quarter that bolted the Bengals out of the doldrums and back into the game.
Of course. That's how long his catch was 357 days before on the Bengals' second play of last season's Wild Card playoff game against the same Steelers. It's the play on which Henry exited with a posterior cruciate knee ligament tear and Palmer left with two torn knee ligaments.
"I just like playing against these guys," said Henry, shrugging at the symmetry. "There's a lot of trash talk. I just sit back listen and try to go out there and make some plays."
Just another day at the office. A touchdown for every four catches. That's what he did this season with a team-leading nine touchdown receptions (tied with T.J. Houshmandzadeh) on 36 catches.
"That's what I try to do," Henry said.
That's what he did on the touchdown, when he was wide open over the middle for about a 15-yard throw and then he turned on the jets down the middle and to the sidelines. When it looked like safety Troy Polamalu might angle him to the sidelines at about the 15-yard line, Henry made a screeching cut to the left and ran out of rookie safety Anthony Smith's tackle.
The knee is fine.
"I felt like they were closing in on me. I was just trying to get into the end zone," Henry said. "We needed it so I was just trying to score."
Now comes his biggest challenge - an offseason of not getting into trouble. Last year, three of his four arrests (including a DUI and a gun charge) came after that playoff game. In fact, a devastating brush with the law that didn't end in an arrest came just hours after he caught two touchdowns against the Steelers back in September.
Henry, prohibited to be around alcohol by at least two states, was found in the car that linebacker Odell Thurman was driving when charged
with a DUI and Lewis sat him down for the next game and the NFL sat him down for the two after that for his legal problems.
On top of the off-field problems, he dropped some big catches (a potential tying TD in the last minute against San Diego, an early TD in Indy) and Palmer screamed at him for not contesting a jump ball in Baltimore.
All of it had people wondering if he's afraid of taking a shot in traffic after Steelers safety Ryan Clark shook him up over the middle in that September game.
Not a quiet year.
"It's been a long one," Henry said. "I'm trying to get everything turned around. As far as football goes, I think my game is a lot stronger. It comes from working hard every day."
Henry said he hasn't been listening to the critics.
"I wasn't trying to prove anything," Henry said. "I'm just trying to make plays. I don't let that talk bother me. I don't listen to it."
The Steelers may start listening to somebody else about how to cover him because they can't do it. In four games he's caught 11 balls for 21 yards per catch and three touchdowns.
To set up the Bengals go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Henry fried cornerback Deshea Townsend one-on-one to lure a 21-yard pass interference penalty that put the ball on the Pittsburgh 7.
But the Steelers still refused to give anyone help on Henry even though they knew the Bengals had to go long with 50 seconds left. This time Henry torched cornerback Bryant McFadden for a 47-yarder when he got position on him inside down the middle on a straight fly pattern.
"It was a deep post call," Henry said. "The cornerback was outside. He got on his toes and went outside. I feel like I can beat one-on-one every time."
Why did the Bengals keep Henry?
Last year he caught 31 balls for 422 yards for a 13.6-yard average and six touchdowns. This year, plagued by his knee rehab until the first 100-yard game of his career in Week 2, he caught 36 for 605, 16.8, nine touchdowns, and two 100-yard games.
They wonder, for many reasons, what it could be next year.
HOLMES HOME: First of all, did Bengals rookie cornerback Johnathan Joseph (a game-high 10 tackles) nearly catch Steelers rookie receiver Santonio Holmes from across the field on the game's final play? And did Ohio State's Holmes actually flash the "O-H" sign for the cameras after he got up from his end-zone dive that finished off his 67-yard touchdown run?
Both are impressive feats, but how could it happen to a Bengals defense that has been harping on stopping the big play for 357 days, or ever since the Steelers drilled them on a throwback pass in last year's Wild Card game?
"We didn't tackle on the last play; I saw that," Lewis said. "That's the only thing I can say there. We've got to make the tackle. They throw it and catch it. They hit the weakness of that particular deal. We've got to make the tackle. The run defense a few times today made plays. We've got to make a tackle. If you make the tackle, you keep playing."
"That deal," according to the Steelers, was a free safety blitz, although it appeared that Madieu Williams, as well as cornerback Tory James and middle linebacker Brian Simmons were in the middle of the field and had brief shots at Holmes.
Williams said the Steelers ran the route effectively all day, particularly to Holmes on a 34-yard play that set up the Steelers' tying field goal with 1:03 left in the game.
"This one was on a dead sprint, and he never lost stride," Williams said. "He was already full speed when he got the ball. That makes it tough. It looked like he was going to hit his head on the goalpost.
"I had to leave my feet and try to dive and clip him with something. But he caught the pass on the dead run while he was moving."
It was just a 62-minute example that the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is a completely different quarterback when he has a running game. As the Steelers piled up 207 yards rushing, Roethlisberger compiled a 97.3 passer rating that is so much better than the 74 he brought into the game.
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said the Bengals blitzed out of the safety spot all day ("It must have been their blitz of the day," Ward said.), and this time Roethlisberger knew he had to pull the trigger quickly because his protection didn't allow for a safety to be blocked.
"Ben saw it; he was on the same page as Santonio," Ward said. "And Ben gave him a chance to run after the catch. Santonio just took it to the house from there. He was just running scared."
Holmes: "I was running scared for the simple fact I wanted us to get off the field. We gave those guys a lot of opportunities to beat us and they really didn't want it as much as we did."
James said he thought the coverage was good enough to have stopped a touchdown, "but we didn't."
The 482 total yards are the second most they've allowed all season, next to the Saints' 595, and the fifth time they've allowed more than 400.
"They ran it down our throat and whipped our butt," Smith said. That's unacceptable to give up 00 yards rushing. ... It's pathetic."
Strong safety Dexter Jackson had another active day with eight tackles and a fumble recovery. Which was huge. It came at the end of what looked to be running back Willie Parker's nine-yard touchdown run on the third play of the fourth quarter. But Parker didn't put the ball away and linebacker Landon Johnson stripped it from behind and Jackson fell on it in the end zone.
(How tough is Johnson? He left again in the first quarter with his nagging ankle injury, went to the locker room before halftime and came back to make the play.)
The 14-play drive was a strange thing. Jackson could have stopped it even before it started but when he had a clear shot on Roethlisberger in the end zone on a blitz, he bounced off him.
It conjured up memories of Denver last week, when a missed tackle from the Denver 2 opened the gates for the Broncos' 99-yard touchdown drive. The defense just couldn't get off the field Sunday, either.
Parker, on his way to 134 yards, rolled for 51 yards on the Steelers' first touchdown drive that went 90. Then he went for 41 more on the drive he fumbled in which the Steelers went 97 yards. The gaping holes that haven't been there since the Atlanta game opened up again as Parker ripped off a 17-yarder to the right side and Najeh Davenport went right again for 20 more.
"We just didn't make enough plays," Jackson said. "They made the plays. They ran the ball, but they didn't hurt us with it because we should have won this game. There's no way we should have lost it."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
Palmer looked a little ginger and sore in his postgame news conference, but he said he had no offseason surgery planned and he didn't have ice on his throwing shoulder.
Left tackle Levi Jones is going to have to take a trip west to visit his doctor after he felt he couldn't play in the second half. Jones, who played last week for the first time since his mid-October arthroscopic knee surgery, had been downgraded to questionable after missing practice Thursday and Friday.
"It didn't feel right at the beginning of the game and then I just figured (Andrew Whitworth) could do better," Jones said. "I don't think I gave it enough rest."
Jones may or may not need another surgery, and this has to be a huge concern for a club that just gave Jones a $40 million deal at the beginning of training camp.
Jones will be back. But Justin Smith, James and left guard Eric Steinbach probably won't be via free agency. All three have said they'd like to be back, and James reiterated it Sunday.
"I love it here. Cincinnati is where I got my chance," James said.
But like James, 33, said earlier in the week, it's not his choice. Although he came up with his fourth interception of the season Sunday, the last play showed why he may not be back because he didn't tackle a very spry and young Holmes.
If he does leave, James takes 21 Cincinnati interceptions, behind only Ken Riley (65), Louis Breeden (33), David Fulcher (31), and Lemar Parrish.
Steinbach and Smith had no comment about their status, saying their focus had been the Pittsburgh game and getting to the playoffs.
"This loss is going to be a tough one to get over," Smith said.