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Posted: 12:10 a.m.



HONOLULU - John Lynch, the ageless Denver safety who has been coming to Hawaii longer than Delta, knows a Pro Bowler when he sees one.

And after his first week of practice with Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Lynch now knows how the Bengals receiver made the journey from the seventh round.

"He showed himself today. Is this his first Pro Bowl?" Lynch asked after the AFC's 42-30 loss. "Sometimes you don't see why a guy gets here until the game because we just walk through practice. He's been laying down some football. He really likes football. He likes talking football."

If you want to know anything about Houshmandzadeh, you just had to watch and listen Sunday because Houshmandzadeh was wired in Hawaii like his video game profile.

Superior knowledge. Fierce bravado. Great hands.

Blip. Click. Zap.

Maybe this was better than being named the game's MVP, which he was after the first 18 minutes:

He played his game amid the best in the game.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning exploited his slot savvy on a 16-yard touchdown pass and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger used his size and strength to score from one yard out on a fade that Houshmandzadeh swiped leaping over the back of Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant.

"It could have gone either way," said Houshmandzadeh of that first score, coming off a one-on-one matchup with Vikings safety Darren Sharper in the slot. "I got up the field, stuck him outside and went in. He's an athletic safety, but that's a mismatch for a corner, too."

His second touchdown was the AFC's last moment in the sun of Aloha Stadium. Houshmandzadeh and Roethlisberger may be two of the more hated figures in the Bengals-Steelers rivalry. (Remember when Joey Porter said he hated Houshmandzadeh?), but ...

"But we hooked up. So maybe we can bring some people together, huh?" Houshmandzadeh asked. "I lobbied to have him throw me the ball and, guess what? We got a touchdown out of it. He let me make a play and I made him look good. When you lobby for the ball, you've got to catch it."

And, of course, just like back home, Houshmandzadeh expounded at length on how they could have kept throwing it to him. Houshmandzadeh leaned down his row of lockers to Colts receiver Reggie Wayne.

"If you put someone outside that pushes those comebacks, you kill them all day. Kill them," Houshmandzadeh said. "Hey, bro. On those drags (over the middle), you catch them (for one or two yards), take it up the field out of bounds and it's 10 yards every time."

Or, he knows another way the AFC would have won.

"If we had Carson (Palmer) in the fourth quarter," said Houshmandzadeh of his quarterback, "we would have won. Easy. Game. Set. Match."

And, he couldn't help taking another jab at the locals, observing of head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, "I hope Marvin and Brat were watching."

Never mind that Lewis and Bratkowski used him enough this season to score 12 touchdowns and lead the NFL in catches.

But Houshmandzadeh is never satisfied and, anyway, he was laughing, at ease in a Pro Bowl locker room. Browns tight end Kellen Winslow wanted to trade helmets but "I already got Donald Driver and D.A. We can trade jerseys back at the hotel," Houshmandzadeh said.

"D.A." is Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, one of Houshmandzadeh's Oregon State descendants. He was here for the first time, too, as was his wideout, Braylon Edwards. Suddenly seven-year veterans like Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson are being observed like Johnson used to take notes here on the Marvin Harrisons and Torry Holts of the world.

"They're so quick getting out of their breaks. That's something I want to add to my game," said Edwards, sporting a Steelers T-shirt.

Asked who talks the most trash of the two, Edwards said, "Everybody knows who talks the most trash. T.J. doesn't say anything. He just plays. The only time he says anything is when you get under his skin."

As much as this was Houshmandzadeh's day, the irrefutable fact is that he has emerged as a top player in his own right partly because of the presence of Johnson and not in spite of it. It's part of his story. That hit home as they dressed next to each other in adjoining stalls, just like back home.

"They push each other. It's almost like a mirror image of me and Marvin Harrison," Wayne said. "We push each other. We make each other good. I still need Marvin. He's a future Hall of Famer and I take pride in helping take the double team off him. It puts my game up a notch."

Despite all of Johnson's pronouncements about being unhappy in Cincinnati, Wayne can't see them apart.

"They've been together so long now," he said. "It wouldn't be right if they weren't. It's a great fit, those two guys."

And if anyone can understand why the Bengals won't trade Johnson, it's Wayne.

"They shouldn't be on the same team. It's almost like stealing," he said. "They're two good players. It's no secret why they're here. They deserve to be here. They make plays. Carson Palmer has two of the best in the game."

If Houshmandzadeh is overshadowed by Johnson, it's only in the media.

"Chad has gotten so much attention," Lynch said, "but when you get ready for a game, coaches talk about (Houshmandzadeh) as much as anyone else."

Lynch also got a close-up shot of the two.

"They have a special kind of relationship," Lynch said. "Chad can be joking around, but then there comes T.J."

And Houshmandzadeh wasn't joking about the loss. And not because he probably would have been MVP with a win.

The final count came out to 29 people accepting his invite for a Hawaiian trip, travel and lodging.

"The $40,000 would have been nice to defray some of the expenses," said Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati's money player who played good enough to earn it.

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