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Steel-ing for the playoffs

Posted: 11:15 p.m.




KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Quarterback Carson Palmer had just showered off the slime of Sunday's 37-3 loss to the Chiefs and the adrenaline was already flowing toward next weekend's first ever postseason showdown against the Bengals' four-decade rival from Pittsburgh.

While there was a New Year Day's hangover from the drubbing ("I guarantee you that's not going to happen again," said defensive tackle John Thornton), the Steelers matchup took off the edge.

"I'm feeling the goose bumps right now," Palmer said in the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium. "Our fans are so excited just for a playoff game, and then to top it off we play Pittsburgh. ... I don't know what the feeling is going to be like in that stadium. I have a good guess estimate what it's going to be like."

The Bengals and Steelers have played 71 times, but Sunday's 4:30 p.m. AFC Wild Card playoff game in the sixth season and 49th game of Paul Brown Stadium is the first time the two have played in the postseason in the Bengals 13th playoff game.

"It's 'The Brawl For It All.' It's 'The Rumble In the Jungle.' It's 'The Thrilla in Manilla,' " said Bengals running back Rudi Johnson.

Left tackle Levi Jones said, "As a Cincinnati Bengal, you've got to want to play Pittsburgh. It has nothing to do with not wanting to play Jacksonville, or wanting to play Jacksonville. As a Cincinnati Bengal, the rivalry we have you've got to want to go into those fistfights."

Battle in the trenches

It's been a game defined lately by both running games, and who gets the upper jaw in the trenches. That has to concern the Bengals a bit in the light of Chiefs running back Larry Johnson's 201-yard left hook Sunday., but the Bengals have learned the hard way that they have to play the Steelers tough and physical. That's why the rubber game of this year's series is going to have all the snap, crackle and pop of a heavyweight title fight and a celebrity gala all rolled into one rollicking weekend on the river.

"You know what that's like?" asked wide receiver Chad Johnson of a media member. "That's like you and J-Lo dating. You know how that feels? That's how it feels about playing Pittsburgh."

Back on Oct. 23 at PBS the Steelers scored a TKO when they flattened the Bengals with 221 rushing yards. Then a month ago the Bengals evened the score when they outlasted the Steelers with a few body shots in the 15th round at Heinz Field.

"It's a fun matchup; exciting," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "To me, this is the best matchup in terms of the excitement, the familiarity of the fans. The Pittsburgh thing is going to be fun. Even when we were 2-14 (the Steelers game) was exciting. Now it's in the first round of the playoffs. It's really exciting. The guys should relish it and look forward to it. It should be a great, great game for us."

Kitna is one of the guys who has had a hand in chipping away at the mastery Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has possessed over the Bengals in his 14 seasons. Cowher has a 20-8 edge on four Bengals head coaches, but Kitna has beaten him twice, once in overtime at PBS and once in the last 13 seconds at Heinz. Then, with the AFC North on the line back on Dec. 4, Palmer ushered in a new era in the Bengals' 38-31 victory.

But the Bengals don't like to view that as an over-the-hump game. Like Thornton said, "They beat us at home and that's where the game is and they'll use that."

"It's never a humper. We don't have a mental block. We barely know what color the helmets are. We just go out and play football," said defensive end Justin Smith. "Most guys come in an out so much that they don't even realize what division you're in half the time when you're playing. Just line up and play football."

But Smith and Thornton know the one thing the Bengals can't do against the Steelers is give up the run like they gave it up against the Chiefs' Larry Johnson. Johnson had the fourth most rushing yards ever against the Bengals with 201 on 26 carries and the 202 total rushing yards is the most they've allowed since they let the Steelers run wild back in October.

The Bengals figure to have against the Steelers two defensive tackles that weren't with them Sunday because of injury in Bryan Robinson (foot) and Carl Powell (neck), as well as Pro Bowl cornerback Deltha O'Neal (knee). By the fourth quarter, defensive tackle Matthias Askew was playing regularly in his first action of the year, and linebacker Caleb Miller and cornerback Greg Brooks were also seeing their most action of the season.

"We didn't play all our starters, so it wasn't a usual week," Smith said. "It's not an excuse. We didn't play like where everybody's minds should have been. ... Hopefully we get everybody back with some bumps and bruises and fire them 100 percent."

The Bengals have been solid against the run since the Steelers poured it on them. In the eight games after Oct. 23 and before Jan. 1, the Bengals had let two teams rush for more than 100 yards. Johnson went for 201 when the Bengals had allowed 210 yards rushing in the previous three games. They hadn't allowed a run of 20 yards in the previous four games and Johnson had three of 20 or longer.

When Johnson went for 137 yards in the first half, including a 49-yarder for a touchdown that is the longest run against the Bengals all season, it was mainly against the first team.

"We can't come out and play like that. We have to play with a bit more effort, including myself," Thornton said. "They made us look bad. They thought they had a chance at the playoffs. I guarantee this won't happen next week. I would be shocked if this happens again. We all know the intensity will pick up this week. From everybody on this team. Neither side played well. Both sides were inconsistent. ... I know we're going to be the underdogs. That's probably best for us."

Indeed, it seems like the Bengals have trouble as the swaggering favorite since they're 0-2 since they won their division. But they have a reservoir of confidence on offense going into the Pittsburgh game, particularly from one C. Johnson.

"How do you stop us?" Johnson asked. "Seriously. Have you ever thought about that? You're in the playoffs and you've got Palmer, Johnson, Housh, Tab, Rudi, (Chris) Perry is back. Too many weapons. Too many weapons. We'll be fine."

In the Bengals' last three wins against the Steelers, the common denominators have been holding Pittsburgh to 102 yards rushing or less as well as completing one pass of at least 49 yards early to put the solid Steelers run defense on its heels.

"If we go out and play our best football," Palmer said, "and we play the way we know we can, we can get a win and move on and catapult us in the playoffs."

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