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Steelers end Bengals' season in OT, 23-17

CINCINNATI (Dec. 31, 2006) -- 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, the emotional linebacker cornered his head coach -- the one he kissed after a victory early in the season -- and asked if he was staying.

"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 we're better than," said Carson Palmer, who rallied the Bengals with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes.

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."

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.

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