The 2009 AFC North Crown has been officially tipped upside down.
The ceremony came on national television at a Paul Brown Stadium so exhausted from an up-and-down game fought uphill from the opening kickoff that the crowd was too tired to boo a season turned on its ear on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
Bernard Scott, who beat the Steelers with a kickoff return last year, fumbled away Monday's opening kick.
After Pittsburgh lost its composure late in last season's second game when Steelers left tackle James Harrison punched Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco melted down Monday with the frustration of not getting the ball.
In Cincinnati's last drive to beat the Steelers at PBS last year, running back Brian Leonard kept it alive with a wondrous play on fourth-and-10. On Monday with the Bengals driving to the same end zone with less than a minute left, Leonard was called for a hold when he tried to pick up a blitz.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw the winning pass last year from the Steelers 4 with 14 seconds left, connected with rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley at the 4 on fourth-and-five with 34 seconds left Monday. But the ball was dislodged from him when Harrison, his composure fully intact, combined with cornerback Ike Taylor to make Shipley a Steelers Sandwich.
"I thought, and everybody in the huddle thought, that we were going to go down and score," Palmer said, now in the throes of the first five-game losing streak of his career. "Obviously, and unfortunately, that's not the case. At the end of the game we ran out of downs and ran out of time, and we didn't do enough to win the game."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had seen it all before.
"Carson Palmer and company, with some timeouts, are a tough crew to deal with. We've seen that flick before," Tomlin said. "I like this ending a little better than the last time we were here. It's all a learning process. Along the way, you have to find a way to win the game."
What better epitaph for a season that now looks dead for the Bengals at 2-6? They've lost games in this five-game losing streak every way imaginable. They got run over in Cleveland, were careless against Tampa Bay, didn't show up on defense in Atlanta, went missing in action on offense against Miami and on Monday night authored one of those special teams disasters you thought was sentenced to the '90s for eternity.
"It's a disappointing game to lose; there's no other words to say it," said head coach Marvin Lewis.
Lewis' frustration seeped out of the locker room walls in harsh words as he lambasted his team after they came off the field. He took the same message into his news conference.
"You can't give up the sack, so we pulled him out," Lewis said of right tackle Andre Smith. "Nobody has a right to play here. We're going to play guys that are going to get it done right for us."
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's frustration blew hot and cold. Some parts of Monday night were like scenes from Fear Strikes Out as he raged at anybody that got near him. It was New England on Monday night in 2007 all over again. But there were other moments he calmed down (his only catch was a huge sliding catch for 15 yards in the last drive) and in the postgame he calmly met the media, cracked some jokes and admitted, "I could cry."
Palmer had a heart-to-heart with Ocho before Ocho left the locker room, putting his hand on his chest, reminding him he's doing whatever he can to get him the ball.
"We talked about the situation. That's what Chad and I do well, which is communicate," Palmer said. "We talked about what happened, and what went wrong, and how to fix it and how to move on."
Palmer showed his frustration with a clap of the hands as the ball fell out of Shipley's arms. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph showed his frustration as he recounted cornerback Leon Hall running step for step with speedster Mike Wallace on the gadget play that turned out to be the winning snap, a 39-yard bomb from wide receiver Antwan Randle El.
"Perfect coverage," Joseph said.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth had an ice bag on the back of his neck full of frustration. Safety Chris Crocker had a long bruise of frustration on his calf. Whitworth never left the game and Crocker only briefly.
"It's the execution; the effort is not lacking," said Lewis, which must make it all the more frustrating.
Wide receiver Terrell Owens is supposed to blow up in all this. Instead, he vents against the foe. This is why he's been the Bengals MVP and why Lewis loves his climb-on-my-back mentality when things get tough.
He caught 10 balls for 141 yards and two touchdowns, all, it seemed, when his team needed it most. With Palmer getting crunched on a James Farrior blitz, Owens glided past cornerback Bryant McFadden for a 27-yard touchdown catch to keep the Bengals breathing early in the fourth quarter. Then he set up the last touchdown when Taylor couldn't cover him down the sideline and Owens drew the 20-yard pass interference penalty. Then he made the catch of the night with an ice-cold 20-yarder at the Steelers 17 with 1:01 left, absorbing a hellacious shot from one of the most feared players in the game, safety Troy Polamalu.
"Probably in the top handful of guys to play the game at that position," Palmer said when asked how good Owens is. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. He is still playing the game at an extremely high level at 35 or 36 years old, or however old he is."
He turns 37 four weeks from today to be exact and he is on pace to become the first Bengals 1,500-yard receiver and have his first 1,500-yard season. He's third in the NFL in both catches (55) and yards (770).
"That's what I do; I've done that play," Owens said of the Polamalu hit. "I know the style of defense Pittsburgh runs. I know they're very aggressive. Polamalu is one of those great safeties that roams all over. He's very aggressive. He comes downhill. I've watched film on him all week, and he's very aggressive. Carson put the ball where it had to be. It was a great catch and tackle."
You knew who Palmer was looking for on the last two plays from the Steelers 12. He took a shot at Owens on third-and-five on a similar route for his first touchdown, a 19-yarder wide open down the middle. This time there were three guys on him and Palmer threw it high to give Owens a chance to make a play, but it was too high. On fourth down, he had no shot to get it to him and checked down to Shipley.
"They pressed on me while I was in the slot. It was really a matter of me trying to get a release and get into my route," Owens said of the third-down play. "It was a timing route, and we were just off sync a little bit. Those are the type of things you practice and try to execute in the game. Sometimes the rhythm is knocked off a little during the course of the game. I thought Carson played a great game. He sat back in the pocket, took a lot of heat, and put the ball in the right spot in tight situations. We gave ourselves a chance to win the ballgame. The last four games, it's been a play here or there."
You know Owens must have played well because the national media was cooing all over him, including Steve Young, his old quarterback that threw the bullet Owens caught to win a playoff game for the 49ers even though he got blown up in Polamalu-like fashion. Young said Owens showed leadership in this one.
And when it came to The Ocho, Owens did just that. He played big brother with him on the sidelines and then played advocate in the media room.
"We have to find some way to get 85 involved for this offense to come to fruition," Owens said. "I think that's up to the offensive coaching staff. Chad is a great talent, and somehow we need to find a way to get him the ball early to mix it up and take advantage of his skills. We've just got to make him available. I'm doing what I can to take pressure off of him. When opportunities come outside one-on-one, we have to exploit that. Defensively, they try to take him out of the game."
Owens is just as mystified about an offense that scored three touchdowns in a game for just the third time this season. And the Bengals have lost all three. He did say there seems to be more urgency late in the game than early. They've scored 104 points in the second half, 63 in the first.
"In every phase of the game there have been lapses," Owens said. "What's key is converting third downs on offense and stopping them on third down on defense. On both sides of the ball we haven't really been doing that. Special teams-wise everyone knows we need to get better in that area. In order for us to beat teams like Pittsburgh, we have to be mentally sound."
He said what he's been saying all year, except with an added T.O. twist.
"I still feel at 2-6 this is the best 2-6 team I've been on," Owens said. "Obviously that's a negative and a positive, but we have the guys to do it. For whatever reason, we're just not doing it. Somehow, some way we need to pay attention to detail. I think every guy has to look in the mirror. What can we do? What can they do to get better here going forward? You never know. Anything can happen in this league. Statistically, I don't know where we are, if we can make the playoffs, but we have to start somewhere. Tonight would have been a great way to start and put us on a streak."