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Bengals denied playoff berth after OT loss to Steelers, 0-3 finish

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Joey Porter tried to end the suspense and get
an answer for the question that all of Pittsburgh is asking.

A few minutes after the Steelers knocked the Cincinnati Bengals
out of playoff contention with a 23-17 victory in overtime Sunday,
the emotional linebacker cornered his head coach -- the one he
kissed after a victory early in the season -- and asked if he was
staying.

Rumors about Cowher's departure are swirling faster than Troy Polamalu in coverage. Cowher's approval rating, which resembles a roller-coaster track climbing as high as 84 percent and plummeting as low as 25 percent, is a perfect replica of the Steelers' struggles this season.


Cowher's Week-to-Week Graph

"Today was the first time anybody put him on the spot," Porter
said. "I asked him. He said he doesn't know. We love the guy
regardless."

Cowher later walked through the locker room with a peaceful
smile on his face and his black, double-breasted jacked comfortably
unbuttoned. He stopped to embrace one player, then another, for a
little chitchat about the game.

They all wanted to know the answer to the overriding question.

"They brought it up to me," said Cowher, who is 161-99-1
overall in 15 seasons at Pittsburgh. "It's hard when I see those
guys.

"I know where I'm leaning. I want to make sure I'm thinking
clearly about it. I'm not burned out. When I make a decision, it's
a well-thought-out one. I'm not a hindsight kind of guy."

While the Steelers waited for an answer, the Bengals (8-8) were
already deep into hindsight about a season gone horribly wrong.

They were first in line for a wild-card playoff berth with three
weeks, but wound up shut out of the playoffs by an 0-3 finish. A
week ago in Denver, a bad snap on an extra-point attempt with 46
seconds to play prevented them from clinching a spot.

There were more mistakes galore against the Steelers (8-8), who
beat them in the playoffs last season. Shayne Graham was wide right
on a 39-yard field goal try with 8 seconds left in regulation.

On the third play in overtime, Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass
to Santonio Holmes, who eluded three defenders and dived the final
few yards into the end zone, completing a 67-yard touchdown play.

Another bad kick and another defensive breakdown finished
Cincinnati off.

"That's just another game we shouldn't have lost to another
team we feel were better than," said Carson Palmer, who rallied
the Bengals with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes.

Four hours after their loss, the Bengals got more reason to feel
bad about it. Denver's 26-23 loss to San Francisco meant that
Cincinnati would have gotten the AFC's other wild card, had Graham
made the field goal with 8 seconds left.

The Bengals won the AFC North last season with a consistent
offense. Their playoff run ended in their first game, when Palmer's
left knee was shredded by Kimo von Oelhoffen's hit on his first
pass at Paul Brown Stadium.

Fans are still riled by that game -- Cowher stole Cincinnati's
"Who Dey" cheer afterward as part of the Steelers' locker room
celebration -- and hung a banner from the upper deck that said: "We
Haven't Forgotten."

They won't soon forget one of the biggest meltdowns in franchise
history.

"I never in a million years thought we'd be sitting at home
during the playoffs, with the talent we have," running back Rudi
Johnson said.

If this was Cowher's finish in Pittsburgh, it was one worth
remembering.

Palmer threw touchdown passes of 66 yards to Chris Henry and 5
yards to Tony Stewart in the fourth quarter, then hooked up with
Henry on a 47-yard completion that put the Bengals in range for the
win.

Graham, the most accurate current kicker in the NFL, pushed the
field-goal attempt a few feet wide, leaving the Bengals
crestfallen. Cowher had called a timeout just before the kick,
making Graham think about it.

"I felt really good about it," said Graham, who missed for the
fifth time in 29 attempts this season. "I hit the ball and there
wasn't a doubt in my mind that it was good. Then I saw the way it
veered off to the right."

All Roethlisberger needed was three plays in overtime to end the
Bengals' faint playoff hopes.

After Holmes darted through defenders for the winning touchdown,
Roethlisberger ran down the field with his index fingers pointing
toward the sky and his mouth agape with joy, looking for someone to
hug after a rare, joyful moment.

Roethlisberger became the youngest quarterback to win a Super
Bowl last season, but had little more than bad news this time
around -- a motorcycle accident in the offseason, followed by an
appendectomy and a concussion.

The Steelers then celebrated in the end zone after ending the
Bengals' season.

"That's why everyone was smiling and happy," running back
Willie Parker said. "If we don't go, they don't go."

Game notes
Parker's two scoring runs gave him 16 for the season, one
more than Louis Lipps' previous franchise record from 1985. ...
Cowher is 21-9 against the Bengals, his most victories against any
team. ... Roethlisberger was 19-of-28 for 280 yards. For the
season, he threw for 3,513 yards -- second-most in team history --
with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, both career highs. ...
Palmer threw for 4,035 yards, a club record. ... In the last three
games, receiver Chad Johnson had a combined 10 catches for 122
yards. He didn't score a touchdown in the last six games.