Cook: There's some forgiving, forgetting from Bengals

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CINCINNATI -- It's funny, the Cincinnati Bengals still plan on showing up at Heinz Field tomorrow to play the Steelers, even though they are beaten up almost beyond recognition.

Veteran center Rich Braham won't play, meaning second-year pro Eric Ghiaciuc will make his second NFL start and have to deal with the Steelers' Casey Hampton. Good luck with that. Safety Dexter Jackson and linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman also won't play. Nor will kickoff return specialist Tab Perry, who had a 94-yard return against the Steelers last season. And wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had 16 catches for 188 yards and three touchdowns in the three games against the Steelers a year ago and had the nerve to wipe his feet with a Terrible Towel, is questionable because of a heel injury and is not expected to start even if he can play.

No problem, the Bengals said.

They like their chances because of who is healthy.

Carson Palmer.

"There's no doubt in my mind we would have won the playoff game last year if he hadn't gone down," defensive tackle John Thornton said.

It's good to get that out of the way right at the top, isn't it?

You knew someone here was going to say it, didn't you?

You know that's how all of Cincinnati feels.

It has been 81/2 months since a low hit by Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen blew up Palmer's left knee on the Bengals' second offensive play of their 31-17 loss in the AFC playoffs.

Since then, Palmer has endured grueling rehabilitation, watched the Steelers go on to win the Super Bowl and expressed his hatred for all things Pittsburgh in a Sports Illustrated cover story in May.

It's nothing personal, Palmer insisted.

It's just that the Steelers have what he and the Bengals think rightfully belongs to them.

The Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"I don't hold any grudges," Palmer said this week.

"I've said it time and time again. Bad things happen some games. Good things happen some games. It's all part of the game."

Hey, that's the Bengals' story and they're sticking to it.

Thornton -- just as he did after the game -- mumbled something again about how von Oelhoffen didn't have to wrap his arms around Palmer's legs. But, for the most part, the Bengals appear to have blamed the football gods for Palmer's injury and their cruel fate of having to watch the Steelers win Super Bowl XL.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis even came close to apologizing for bringing Ben Roethlisberger into the controversy. "We're not going to sit and cry like their quarterback did," he said after the game, a reference to some mild complaining Big Ben had done after a low hit by Thurman in an earlier game between the teams last season.

"I shouldn't have said it. I was wrong for saying it," Lewis said this week.

"I don't know of one NFL player who has intentionally tried to hurt another player. I certainly know Kimo von Oelhoffen wouldn't try to hurt anyone."

All of that doesn't mean Lewis and the Bengals haven't been pointing toward the game since the NFL schedule came out in April. Palmer immediately made a mental note of it and the Dec. 31 rematch against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium and used thoughts about those games as motivation to get through his punishing workouts.

"Not that any game means more than any other, but this one might," he said.

Palmer's recovery and comeback have been remarkable. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 127 yards in the Bengals' win at Kansas City in the opener. He was better last week in a win against the Cleveland Browns, throwing for 352 yards and two touchdowns.

"What Carson has done is amazing," Roethlisberger said. "He may hate us, but I don't hate him. He's a great quarterback."

The Steelers had mixed results against Palmer last season. They snapped his string of nine consecutive games with at least a 100 passer rating and intercepted two of his passes in a 27-13 win at Paul Brown Stadium in October.

They weren't nearly as good against him in the game at Heinz Field in December, giving up three touchdown passes in a 38-31 loss

We'll never know what would have happened in the playoff game if Palmer hadn't been hit by von Oelhoffen an instant after he threw a 66-yard pass to wide receiver Chris Henry.

"I know," Thornton insisted.

Now that's his story and he's definitely sticking to it.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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