So it ends, and the news is worse than expected — not just a Bengals loss but the loss of their quarterback. And now we enter a worried offseason while Carson Palmer rebuilds his left knee and Marvin Lewis keeps rebuilding a defense that would have spelled the end even if Palmer's injury didn't.
A banner year ends with a bad taste in the mouth. A winning season, the first in 15 years, ends with three consecutive losses. All right now, cheer up.
The offseason stands to be so exciting that training camp will be around before you know it, about when the Reds auction off a big contract to help someone else in a pennant race. Not so long ago you looked at the Bengals after the season and wondered how they could possibly add enough parts. Today they need only a few. And they've got the means.
Free agency used to mean the Bengals identified a man they wanted, fed him dinner and gave him a ride around town before he signed somewhere else.
Now they're a playoff team. Great players want to join playoff teams.
Without knowing which defensive linemen will go up for sale this spring, we can guess the Bengals are a hot market. Conventionally, it used to be thought the Bengals couldn't sign one without overpaying. Now they're legitimate. Which doesn't mean it will be cheap.
The draft comes up on April 29-30. The Bengals aren't one of those teams needing Vince Young or Reggie Bush. Fans in Houston, Louisiana and Tennessee think they're excited because they might scoop up a young game-breaker. Bengals fans know the feeling.
But Bengals fans now understand what excitement about the draft really means. It means they might scarf up Orien Harris, Claude Wroten or Brodrick Bunkley. Who? We asked the same question about Odell Thurman.
Who knows? They're premium collegiate defensive tackles, the kind of guys Mel Kiper puts on his top five list at the position. The professionals can decide which of them are any good or which are the best or even if they want any of them.
The point is that the Bengals can add one or two fellows to fortify themselves against the run. And we know they'll make the right call. They're likely to drag out the negotiations, but they'll add players.
The Bengals aren't all that far off. They've been to the playoffs, touched the stone and opened a whole new world. The Bengals will play against a much tougher slate of opponents next year and we might end up wondering what happened when they lose a couple of those games, but they'll improve.
Where a winning season once seemed impossible, a Super Bowl now is within reach. Keep fine-tuning the offense, upgrade the front of the defense, pick up a piece here and there. The future is bright.
But the present pulled a fast one on us. The last month did not go well. It ended with a 31-17 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals' first playoff game in 15 years and the first ever at Paul Brown Stadium. One is tempted to say, "Same old Bengals," but the temptation recedes quickly because it isn't true. We used to say that because the Bengals were hopeless.
But the Bengals weren't hopeless even as Palmer left on a cart. A pretty play, his 66-yard completion to Chris Henry, until you noticed Palmer still on the ground after former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into him.
But the Bengals weren't hopeless. As their medical staff examined Palmer's knee, they rallied behind Jon Kitna and played a representative first half for a 17-14 lead.
Of course, a sense of dread hung over their first half, for even as they scored two touchdowns in front of the fans their fate played out behind the scenes. Maybe the other guys could suck it up and win with Kitna for one game. It's happened before. Hope was alive.
But without Palmer, how could the Bengals go into Denver and win? How could they keep up with the racehorse Colts under a dome in Indianapolis? In the desperate hope that Palmer didn't hurt himself as badly as he obviously did, Bengals fans watched their guys play their best football in weeks, wondering all the while how long it could last.
It didn't last long. The game basically ended early in the third quarter, rather suddenly. At halftime, the Bengals said Palmer tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. CBS reported that he also tore the medial collateral ligament. Palmer's season was over. And the Bengals died almost with that news.
The Bengals drove to a field goal attempt off the second half kickoff, then threw away the snap. The Steelers responded with a touchdown. Then another. The third quarter ended with Pittsburgh up 28-17.
By some accounts, playoff inexperience and the lack of a Pro Bowl quarterback finished the Bengals. Really, though, the Steelers crushed them after halftime the way the Steelers crush teams when they're going well, which is the way the Bengals are crushed when they're going poorly. The Steelers just ran over them, garnished with a trick-play touchdown.
The prognosis is that Palmer will be fine, eventually. Whether he'll be ready for training camp or whether he'll miss the first few weeks of the season seems to be up for grabs, but some reports have it that his two torn left knee ligaments ripped cleanly, enhancing his chance for a quick recovery.
Palmer's knee might not be the least of the Bengals' problems, but it's not the most, either. Following a game first half during which the Bengals performed partly to the playoff occasion and partly to their fury about Palmer's absence, their rush defense went away in the second half, allowing 106 of Pittsburgh's 144 rushing yards after intermission.
But the time is at hand to fix that. Wait 'til next year.