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Bengals Bank on Palmer

Long the NFL's doormat, Cincinnati is back in the playoffs thanks to former USC star, who was recently rewarded with an extension

By Sam Farmer, Times Staff Writer

It wasn't just a bad haircut. It was the worst worn by any Cincinnati sports star this side of Pete Rose. Bengal quarterback Carson Palmer, a guy with leading-man looks, returned to training camp this summer after a two-day break and was sporting a sue-your-barber buzz cut. Turns out, Palmer cut it himself.

"I'm cheap," he said with a smile.

He's also staggeringly rich, especially after signing a six-year contract extension worth $118.75 million last week, a deal designed to keep the unassuming Palmer in Cincinnati through the 2014 season. In a highly unusual move for a normally penny-pinching organization, the Bengals approached Palmer before he could come to them.

Clearly, they appreciate what they have in him. Three years after leading USC back to college football's elite, Palmer has helped put the Bengals back on the NFL map. He led the league in touchdown passes and completion percentage, and was voted to the Pro Bowl along with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Now, the pressure is on Palmer to perform when it counts most. On Sunday, the Bengals play host to Pittsburgh in their first playoff game since the 1990 season. The AFC North rivals split their season series, each winning on the road.

"We're fired up about the opportunity," Palmer said. "This is going to be a great game. We love the matchup with Pittsburgh. We love playing those guys, and those guys love playing us. It's always a great, competitive game. It gets your mind ready. When you've got Pittsburgh coming in you've got to get your mind focused, you've got to get your mind prepared."

To get past the Steelers, Cincinnati will need to be a lot sharper than it was in Sunday's season-ending 37-3 loss at Kansas City. Palmer played only two series before handing the reins to backup Jon Kitna. Several other starters also rested.

"With the way they finished, [Coach] Marvin Lewis is not going to be happy," said Boomer Esiason, the last quarterback to lead the Bengals to the playoffs. "But this is what they drafted Carson Palmer for. He's played in enough big games…. The kid's a purebred. He's built for this."

Maybe so, but Palmer isn't at his physical best. He suffered a groin pull during a Christmas Eve game against Buffalo and isn't quite back to form. He said he would not have had a problem playing the entire finale, however, had he been needed.

Before the 2003 draft, when it was clear the Bengals intended to use the top pick on Palmer, the Trojan quarterback went out to dinner with Esiason in New York. The two talked about Cincinnati, what it would take to turn around the franchise, a perennial loser.

"I asked him if he wanted to go there," recalled Esiason, a CBS analyst. "He told me that if the Bengals were willing to make him the No. 1 pick, he was going to be part of the solution not part of the problem. He was emphatic. He might be from California, but he's a Midwestern guy with Midwestern values.

"From that moment on, I knew this kid was going to be exactly what the Bengals needed. David Klingler wasn't like that. Akili Smith wasn't like that," he said, referring to two former quarterbacks who were drafted high by the Bengals then flopped. " … Carson just had this quiet confidence. It mirrors the kind of confidence you see in Tom Brady."

Then again, Brady, the Patriot quarterback, is 9-0 in the postseason. Palmer is 0-0.

The playoffs might be unfamiliar ground, but the Steelers are a very familiar opponent. In his last game against them, a 38-31 victory Dec. 4, Palmer threw for 222 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

"Any time you previously beat somebody, it gives you confidence," Palmer said Sunday. "But they've beat us too. It's a great matchup. If we play our best football and play the way we can, we'll get a win and move on, and it will catapult us through the playoffs. Our fans are so excited just for a playoff game, then on top of it we get to play Pittsburgh. I'm feeling the goose bumps right now."

Although the Steelers are 0-3 in road playoff games under Coach Bill Cowher, they have won six of seven at Cincinnati.

"There won't be any secrets," Steeler linebacker Joey Porter told reporters Sunday. "We played them before. We know what to expect from them, they know what to expect from us. We played in that hostile environment before and we're looking forward to it."

When they last played in Cincinnati, the Steelers were able to control things with their running attack. Unlike the Bengals of 1990, this team doesn't have the defense to back up solid play from the quarterback.

"This game will be a measuring stick for the Bengals," Esiason said. "In a way, it's a much bigger game for them than it is for the Steelers. I can just imagine Bill Cowher sitting his guys down and telling them, 'We own these guys. We're a much better team now than when we lost to them. We're just going to pound it down their throats.'

"When I was playing, I felt like our defense could overcome a mistake or two if I made one. But I don't think that's going to be the case with this team. I think Carson's got to be close to perfect."

And, at times this season, Palmer has proven he can be. Haircuts aside.

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should anyone doubt that this team's chances in the playoffs are all resting on Carson's shoulders..

this team is mediocre when he's not in the game.. He is the Bengals right now..

His presence opens up the run game and takes pressure off the defense.

If the Oline protects him we just may beat Pittsburgh.

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Good article. I'd agree that Palmer is the key to everything we do in the playoffs, as he was the biggest reason we won 11 games in the regular season. Without his leadership and his arm, this team is nothing special. We'll see if he's a Brady or a Manning come Sunday.

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