T.J. Houshmandzadeh (middle) pegged the Bengals early when he worked with them in the spring.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the man who shined his shoes with a "Terrible Towel," ten years ago, thinks his Bengals can wipe the slate clean in Saturday night's Wild Card Game (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium against the Steelers.
Houshmandzadeh, the third leading receiver in Bengals history, worked with the wide outs this spring and has been telling everyone since to keep an eye on this team. He's been talking a lot trash this week as the two-minute descendants of quarterback Carson Palmer and Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson try to flip the Steelers' 31-17 victory from the Jan. 8, 2006 Wild Card Game that began the 0-6 post-season run in almost supernatural fashion.
Houshmandzadeh can whiff the similarities and run a go route back to '05. The Bengals clinched the AFC North title with time to spare for the third seed after beating Pittsburgh at home and splitting the series. The Steelers made the post season on the last day with the last seed at No. 6. And even though the Bengals have to go on the road if they win, the sense, like it is in '05, is they match up well with New England and Denver if quarterback Andy Dalton comes back.
"If they get by this one, I'll see you in San Francisco," says Houshmandzadeh of Super Bowl 50 this week from his home on the outskirts of Los Angeles. "It would be great for the Bengals to win (Saturday). One for their psyche. Two for Marvin (Lewis). Three it would be great for the city. If you win this it starts a snowball. It'd be like what we should have done."
Houshmandzadeh, who had the Bengals' lone touchdown catch in that Wild Card Game from backup quarterback Jon Kitna, knows this team better than most since he saw them in-depth for a few weeks.
"I said it in the spring and I'm so happy to see it come to fruition," Houshmandzadeh says. "They're better than we were. What did I tell you when I saw (tight end) Tyler Eifert? I said this guy's really good. Somebody comes up to me every week and thanks me for telling them to put him on their fantasy team. They don't have a Carson, and I don't think they have myself and a Chad. But they're better across the board.
"The offensive line reminds of what we had with the tackles and they're probably more athletic inside than we were. Their backs are better. I think we had the edge in receiver, but when we lost Chris Henry with an injury, so the edge goes to them. And the defense, well, when Leon (Hall) is your third corner, that's all you need to know."
This all you need to know from No. 84.
"Best roster in the league,' Houshmandzadeh says. "When the first-round cornerback goes down (Darqueze Dennard) and it doesn't hurt them right away and all it hurts is their depth that tells you how talented they are."
He thinks they beat the Steelers because, "They can't cover the Bengals receivers." Not just A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu, but there is his main man Eifert with 13 touchdown catches. It makes him think of the late Chris Henry, the slim, 6-4 speedster that could never be overthrown.
"What made us dangerous is that we had a third receiver that could be a starter," Houshmandzadeh says. "I think the Bengals have that in Tyler Eifert. He's like a receiver. If you're the Steelers, what do you do? I would shut down Antonio Brown, make him get 10 catches for 60 yards, and make sure Martavis Bryant doesn't beat you over the top. And the Steelers can't match up with the Bengals."
When he looks back on it now, that second play of his first of three post-season games when Palmer got his ACL torn, the injury to Henry on the same 66-yard throw turned out to be just as damaging. The Steelers simply couldn't cover him as the play showed, and when he suffered a season-ending knee injury, they were able to sit on Kitna. Houshmandzadeh had to move into Henry's position because the next man up, Kevin Walter, only knew Houshmandzadeh's slot position.
"I still thought we were going to win," said Houshmandzadeh when he saw Palmer carried off the field. "We were winning 10-0; we were winning (17-7). Kitna was a proven quarterback who'd been in the league a long time."
Cincinnati Bengals host the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.
Houshmandzadeh knows how tough it is without Dalton. But he likes Andy Dalton's chances even though he's got just three NFL starts. When Kitna came off the bench for Palmer, he had 79 starts, two more than Dalton has now.
"When I left Cincinnati this spring, one thing I was impressed with was AJ's confidence," Houshmandzadeh says. "If AJ can just keep calm and make some plays. One, he's got some games under his belt. Two, he's played enormous national championship games in college. You would think this wouldn't rattle him. He's played on the biggest stages in front of 100,000 people. You can bet on that. But if worse comes to worse, they can't match up with A.J., they can't match up with (Giovani) Bernard and they can't match up with Eifert on the back side. What do they do?"
And then there is the mentality that Houshmandzadeh loves from the defense. Ten years ago, there's no question, he says, that the Joey Porters, James Harrisons, the James Farriors, and the Ike Taylors that beat the Bengals were bullies and, if not, they simply felt like they were better than you.
Now he looks at the Bengals and while they may not be bullies, they give no quarter.
"I don't know what happened, but I sat down to watch the last game and there's a pre-game fight. I would have been in the middle of that,' Houshmandzadeh says. "To me, (Vontaze) Burfict is the perfect antidote for what the Steelers try to do. He's not a punk. Adam Jones isn't a punk. I played against Reggie Nelson. He's not a punk. Al those guys like to talk, but they're not punks. They're going to give just as much as they take. That's something you need. As long as they keep their composure. They have to keep their composure and not get the 15-yard penalties."
Houshmandzadeh knows how hard that is to do.
"Chad and I pretty much talked ourselves out of the NFL. Let's call it what it is," Houshmandzadeh says. "I look back on some of the things I did when I was playing and I say, 'Are you kidding me?' . . . You're cool with the other guys off the field, but in the heat of competition . . . "
'05? Houshmandzadeh says they didn't lose their cool. Yes, Johnson lost it at halftime because he wasn't getting the ball. But Houshmandzadeh says that's not the reason they lost.
"We lost our quarterback," Houshmandzadeh says. "I wish he hadn't done it, but he was young, he was passionate, he wanted to do well on the big stage, he just didn't do it the right way. Did we come out thinking about Chad when we went back out on the field? Absolutely not. We were just trying to execute."
And the game hasn't changed that much in ten years.
"Shut down Brown," says Houshmandzadeh, "and they can't cover the Bengals."