Steelers running back Willie Parker celebrates his second-quarter touchdown catch with tackle Max Starks (78).
CINCINNATI - The Cincinnati Bengals won't soon forget their first playoff game in 15 years, for all the wrong reasons.
The Pittsburgh Steelers first took out quarterback Carson Palmer and then defeated Cincinnati 31-17 to end what the Bengals hoped would be a deep playoff run.
The comeback victory from a 10-0 deficit pits the Steelers against the Colts in Indianapolis for a 1 p.m. AFC semifinal playoff next Sunday.
Palmer, No. 2 in the NFL passer ratings, left the game for good after completing a 66-yard pass on Cincinnati's second offensive play. Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen hit him low as he was throwing, which tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the quarterback's left knee.
Veteran Jon Kitna replaced Palmer and guided the Bengals to leads of 10-0 and 17-7, but the Steelers eventually pressured him into four sacks and two interceptions as their offense came alive behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"Carson Palmer's a Pro Bowl quarterback," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "Certainly it's very tough when you lose a guy of that nature. You can't diminish that."
Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes: 19 yards to Willie Parker, five yards to Hines Ward, and 43 yards to Cedrick Wilson. Jerome Bettis ran five yards for another touchdown, and Jeff Reed kicked a field goal as the Steelers scored 24 straight points from late in the second quarter.
The teams split their two games in the AFC North this season with the Bengals winning the division title. After Cincinnati won at Heinz Field Dec. 4, some Bengals declared that the torch had passed to a new team in the division.
"The torch never left," Ward declared. "They won one game, we finished with the same record. They won the AFC North, but when it counted in the playoffs, I guess we kind of got the torch back."
Ward said that "Cincinnati's our home away from home" after the Steelers won here for the seventh time in the last eight games.
Roethlisberger completed 14 of 19 passes for 208 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a gaudy 148.7 passer rating. He was sacked just once, turning in a marvelous playoff performance after two poor ones at the end of his rookie season.
"He made some big plays," Cowher said, "some big scrambles, and very good decision making."
Bettis led the Steelers with 52 yards on 10 carries. Rudi Johnson led the Bengals with 56 yards on 13 carries, including a 20-yard TD run that staked them to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. T.J. Houshmandzadeh's seven-yard TD catch from Kitna in the second quarter gave the Bengals a 17-7 lead, but it was all downhill for the home club from there.
"We had to come out and weather the storm," Roethlisberger said. "They gave us a great shot in the beginning, really pounded it to us, made some big plays. We said, let's keep scoring points when we can and take their best shot. I think we did that. We weathered it well."
Palmer was injured after he completed the longest pass in Bengals' postseason history, a 66-yarder down the right sideline to Chris Henry, who beat cornerback Deshea Townsend.
Behind Kitna, the Bengals moved from their 22 to the five, where Tyrone Carter tackled Houshmandzadeh on third down to force a field goal, converted by Shayne Graham for a quick 3-0 Cincinnati lead.
Cincinnati made it two drives, two scores to go ahead 10-0. Kitna completed consecutive passes of 11 and 14 yards, scrambled for a dozen and then found Kevin Walter for a 15-yard pass to the 20.
Rudi Johnson broke off the left side, through Chris Hope's attempt to tackle him at the 15 and into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.
"You have to kind of weather that initial flurry," Cowher said.
The Steelers offense finally put it in gear early in the second quarter. Parker scored on a 19-yard screen pass from Ben Roeth-
lisberger, and it was 10-7.
Cincinnati hardly was finished, though. Kitna completed a pass to a wide-open Houshmandzadeh for a seven-yard touchdown and a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers, though, responded. The quarterback pumped once and then pumped again and hit Wilson with a 54-yard pass down the left side to the 22. Antwaan Randle El followed with a 16-yard catch to the 6. On third down, Roethlisberger gunned a ball over the middle to Ward for a five-yard touchdown that kept the Steelers in the ballgame, trailing 17-14 at halftime.
"We felt at halftime we had taken their best shot," Cowher said. "There were so many positive things coming from their side and it was only 17-14. That's not bad."
Cincinnati tried to stretch its lead when Graham attempted a 33-yard field goal in the third quarter. Brian St. Louis, however, snapped the ball high and the Steelers took over at the 34.
That mistake triggered a turnaround as the Steelers took their first lead 4 1/2 minutes later.
Roethlisberger threw deep to Randle El, who beat safety Kevine Kaesviharn but dropped the perfect pass in the end zone. However, Kaesviharn was flagged for pass interference on the play, and that gave the Steelers a first down at the five.
Bettis took it from there, bursting through a big hole between left tackle and left guard and boring into the end zone for a 21-17 Steelers lead with 5:12 to go in the third quarter.
"The big guy still has some pretty good feet," Cowher said.
The Steelers used some razzle-dazzle to push their lead to 28-17 on their next drive. The center snap went to Randle El, lined up to the left of Roethlisberger in the shotgun formation on third down. He ran to his right, stopped, and threw back to
Roethlisberger at the Steelers' 45. Roethlisberger then passed deep to Wilson, wide open at the five, for a 43-yard touchdown.
"We definitely needed a knockout punch," Wilson said. "It was a great call."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ed Bouchette is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.