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T.J.: Take the Steelers

The similarities are killing T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Two big-time receivers. A strong-armed quarterback. A running attack good enough to make it all so dangerous.

"And our running game was better than Arizona's," said Houshmandzadeh wistfully Monday night. "I'm kind of disappointed that they've gone this far the way they've done it because there are a lot of similarities. Our quarterback just got hurt."

Houshmandzadeh's voice trailed off to wherever 10-point leads drift. Even the Cardinals opponent is the same in Sunday's Super Bowl. The big, bad, Ben-led Steelers, the team the Bengals stunned on the second snap of the Stephen King Wild Card Game with a 66-yard pass from Carson Palmer to Chris Henry on which both suffered game-ending injuries in a 31-17 loss.

Many say the Bengals have never been right since that day, but they forget that nine months later Palmer sifted Pittsburgh's defending Super Bowl champions for four touchdown passes on their home turf in a 28-20 victory that gave the Bengals a 2-0 record in the division, 3-0 overall.

Palmer hit Houshmandzadeh for two touchdowns that day, a nine-yarder and 30-yarder. If Cards quarterback Kurt Warner can find wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for a couple of those, Arizona will win Houshmandzadeh says.

"But they won't," said Houshmandzadeh, crediting his former head coach and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "LeBeau won't let Larry Fitzgerald beat them deep. He may catch a lot of balls short, but they won't give him the big one. That's how you beat Pittsburgh: with the big play. They're going to do what they always do. They're going to pressure the passer so the only thing he can do is get rid of it fast and they'll make sure you don't get the first down."

Even more galling to Houshmandzadeh is that he believes Fitzgerald and Boldin are more like him than He Who Changes His Name.

"They don't have anybody who is quick like Chad," said Houshmandzadeh of running mate Chad Ocho Cinco. "They're both bigger, stronger guys. Really, they just throw the ball up to Fitzgerald and he goes up and gets it. That's something I can do and have done."

And Houshmandzadeh thinks the Bengals can return to that form, but there is a big qualifier in there.

"The way our defense has improved and you have to figure there is no way our offense is going to be that bad again," he said. "Well, if I'm not back it can be that bad again."

Which, of course, is the huge question mark hanging over the offseason. Houshmandzadeh is choosing to low-profile it, even turning down some NFL Network gigs so he doesn't have to be outspoken about his contract situation that ends in free agency in 31 days at midnight Feb. 27.

With the franchise tag for a wide receiver just below $10 million for 2009, the conventional wisdom is the Bengals won't use it on him, a decision that must be made by Feb. 22. Most likely they will try to get something done in the next month and Houshmandzadeh said he would still talk to them if he goes on the market.

"I don't think what people realize is I wouldn't mind coming back," Houshmandzadeh said. "I just want a choice. I just want to see what else is out there. I'm not going to take the biggest deal to play on Mars. I want to get to the playoffs like Big Willie (Anderson) did. Yeah, I think we can get back and I've got a lot of friends there."

Houshmandzadeh, who lives in suburban Los Angeles, is a West Coast guy and his name has been linked in the last few days to San Francisco and Seattle. But he doesn't want to talk about it, preferring to let the situation play out.

"That's news to me. We'll see what happens. It's early," he said.

But not too early for Houshmandzadeh to look at film of some of the top college prospects that NFL Network has sent him. He may come out from behind the curtain and in front of the microphone once free agency is closer and there is the NFL scouting combine to discuss.

He'd love to see the Bengals draft one of those left tackles early. Or USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. He thinks head coach Marvin Lewis might like him.

"He looks like a guy that can run from sideline to sideline and make plays," Houshmandzadeh said. "Marvin hasn't had a guy like that since Odell (Thurman)."

But Houshmandzadeh is the one guy who always mentions the offensive line when the Bengals win and how critical it is. He likes the size of Alabama left tackle Andre Smith and the experience of Mississippi left tackle Michael Oher.

"Smith is huge. He's got some big feet and you wonder about him because they pretty much only ran the ball at Alabama," Houshmandzadeh said. "But he looks athletic enough that he can make the transition to pass blocking. Oher is the most experienced of them all. He's been pretty solid for a long time down there. Jason Smith is another big kid from Baylor that looks pretty good."

But for now, the microphone is stowed.

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