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NFL PLAYOFFS

Bengals Playing Role of Underdog

January 08, 2006|From the Associated Press

CINCINNATI — They're division champions, playing on their home field against the team they displaced atop the AFC North.

And, the Cincinnati Bengals are expected to lose. How can this be?

Simple. It has a lot to do with their late-season slide, their playoff inexperience and their first-round opponent. Unlike the Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) know how to win games like the one they'll play today at Paul Brown Stadium.

The explanation is logical, but hardly soothing. The Bengals have waited 15 years for a playoff game, and it's a little grating that they aren't even the top name on the marquee now that it's here.

"You hear the naysayers, you hear the negativity," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "You hear people talking about the line of the game.

"Whoever it was going to be, it was going to be a big game. But Pittsburgh with the rivalry and because they're the favorite, it just adds a little bit to the fire."

It's not just the prognosticators and the oddsmakers. A lot of Bengal fans dread the thought of a third and decisive game against the Steelers, who came to town Oct. 23 and won, 27-13.

The Bengals won the rematch in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, a 38-31 victory that all but clinched the division title.

But it's that earlier game that fans around these parts remember. They were openly pulling for the Bengals to have a first-round game against Jacksonville.

"A lot of it was our fans saying it," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "My thing to our fans is: Don't get scared now, because we need our fans."

At the end of his radio show on Thursday night, receiver Chad Johnson -- who has declined interviews all week -- told fans he understands a lot of them are worried about playing Pittsburgh again. He assured them everything would be fine.

Anderson went a step further, suggesting it's better for the Bengals if they're not expected to win.

"I'm glad we're not," he said. "We shouldn't be. Pittsburgh is an experienced team, coming off a 15-1 season [last year], they've been in playoffs year-in and year-out.

"We shouldn't be favored. We should be in a position where we have to come out and fight our way and prove ourselves to everyone."

Although they split their season series, the teams are on vastly different planes when it comes to the playoffs. Forty of the Steelers have been to the playoffs with Pittsburgh; only 13 of the Bengals have been in the postseason with other teams.

And, the Steelers have experience at the position where it most matters. Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to the AFC title game as a rookie last season. Palmer is making his first appearance in a game that will start to define his career.

"All you hear is Tom Brady is 9-0 as a postseason quarterback, and you hear about [Dan] Marino and that Peyton [Manning] hasn't gotten to the big one. That's part of your legacy," Palmer said. "When people talk about quarterbacks of the past, they talk about what happened in the playoffs. Did they get to the Super Bowl? Did they win the Super Bowl?

"That's part of your legacy, and my legacy starts this weekend. I understand how big of a game this is."

Roethlisberger learned last year how the pressure mounts once the playoffs begin. He forced throws and three of his passes were intercepted during a 41-27 loss to New England in the conference title game.

Experience in these games seems to matter.

"I think it matters for me," Roethlisberger said. "I think I'll be better this year than I was last year. I'd like to hope."

Momentum usually matters, too, and the Steelers have much more of it. Following that loss to the Bengals, they won their last four games to secure the final AFC wild card berth. The Bengals lost their last two games -- to Buffalo and Kansas City -- after clinching the division title.

"No question, there's something for momentum week to week," coach Marvin Lewis said. "Not many teams have gone to the Super Bowl without that."

*

BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

CAROLINA (11-5) AT N.Y. GIANTS (11-5)

Today, 10 a.m., Channel 11

THE OUTLOOK

* Panther update: Coach John Fox, a former Giant defensive coordinator, was unusually sentimental this week when he talked about playing his former team. He praised and thanked late owners Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch, both of whom died this season. But all that doesn't mean Fox doesn't want to beat the pants off the Giants. The Panthers have the edge when it comes to an experienced starting quarterback. Jake Delhomme is two years removed from leading Carolina to the Super Bowl. During his red-hot playoff run in 2003, he had a rating of 106.1 in four games, with six touchdowns and one interception.

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