After a 6-for-7 start, Palmer lost elite touch

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When quarterback Carson Palmer finally got around to throwing something that at least might have been mistaken as a touchdown pass last night, somewhere near the upswing of midnight, T.J. Houshmandzadeh juggled it just as Larry Foote arrived with a bear hug.

Incomplete.

There were, umm, 27 of those.

Mostly though, Palmer's receivers didn't have to go to all the trouble of dropping them. It was essentially a matter of watching them sail off into the dank atmosphere in perhaps the most stunningly unaccomplished performance of this Bengals quarterback's decorated career.

"We had some balls that were thrown a little high," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said after first citing three to five other possible explanations for the Steelers' 24-10 victory at Heinz Field. "We ran our offense, but I really can't explain why we didn't execute at times."

But he could explain it, however reluctantly. And he did.

"We missed some throws, and as I said, that wound up somewhat being the difference."

It's considered poor form to criticize Palmer, a concession to his general excellence, but there's nothing wrong with pointing out some negatives in light of his 17-for-44 performance.

But that's as far as Lewis would go. It's bad enough this back-sliding franchise sank to 4-8 last night without taking the invitation to slap at the franchise quarterback. Lewis, and most everyone else, more typically talks about Palmer like this:

"Carson is so down to earth, you used to think it was almost an act. And he's never changed. He is what he is. That's his makeup, and it probably always has been. He's so unflappable. He can focus in and see right through the eye of that storm, and that may be his greatest quality he has.

"I think everyone around him feels the confidence that kind of oozes out of him, and it makes them feel good about things."

Uh-huh. All true. But I don't know what that was oozing out of him last night after the first possession. Palmer completed 11 of his final 37 passes in a game the Steelers practically begged to get beat. The Bengals came up with four turnovers, three of them in the second half, but no amount of opportunism could straighten out Palmer's trajectory.

Even more curiously, Palmer's opening statement in the downpour was precisely the kind of elegant, reliable delivery that has lifted him among the game's elite passers.

He went 6 for 7 on Cincinnati's first possession, finding four different receivers at different addresses in an initially hesitant Steelers defense, went 3 for 3 on third down, and accounting for 57 of the 75 yards that comprised the exquisite drive to a 7-0 advantage for the visitors.

Looking perfectly comfortable in the North Side confines where they had won in consecutive visits and in three of the past four, the Bengals looked perfectly capable of something like 56-0 at that moment.

Considering that Palmer converted 14 consecutive third-down opportunities in a 35-6 pasting of Tennessee only a week previous, and that in his previous three games against the Steelers he was 61 for 95 for 649 yards and seven touchdowns, you could have guessed the Bengals had the kind of momentum at work behind No. 9 to be seriously problematic.

Then Palmer went 2 for 9.

Just like that.

Starting flinging soggy passes high and wide, low and away, all the way to halftime. In short, the Bengals wasted all kinds of superior field position over the next 23 minutes and found themselves down, 17-7, at intermission.

And after Palmer went 2 for 9, he went 9-for-the-next-28.

He missed Houshmandzadeh on a slant early in the third quarter that would have sliced the Steelers' lead to three points, firing wide and behind his top touchdown maker two plays after the first of Willie Parker's two second-half fumbles.

He missed Chad Johnson badly on the next possession. Just about the only positive was that for a guy throwing that often that badly, he somehow was not intercepted. Palmer was probably glad Houshmandzadeh did him the favor of dropping that one in the end zone, because he likely didn't want to get into the 100 career touchdown club. Stuck on 99 touchdown passes, Palmer will be the fifth fastest to 100 when he gets there, taking longer (58 career games) than only Dan Marino (44), Kurt Warner (50), Johnny Unitas (53), and Peyton Manning (56).

The Steelers brought plenty of personnel capable of beating the Bengals last night. It didn't hurt that Carson Palmer was among them.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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