Ben Vs. Carson? More Like Maddox Vs. Blake - By Neal Coolong

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

The future was bright this time last year for the darling QB duo in the AFC North. Cincinnati's Carson Palmer was leading the resurgent Bengals back significance and their first winning season in 15 years. Ben Roethlisberger was stepping into the leadership role of a franchise that hadn't had quality play from that position since roughly the last time the Bengals had a winning season.

Football is a cruel medium, isn't it?

Palmer lay writhing in pain on the grass at Paul Brown Stadium last January, victim of a significant knee injury. He was carted off with cameras focused in, giving all watching a first-hand look at The Face -- the look a player has when he knows he won't be playing football for a very long time.

Roethlisberger ruined the work production of the entire city of Pittsburgh when reports filtered through to TV and radio stations of his horrific motorcycle accident last June. "No helmet" became repeated more often in the work place than "I wish it was Friday," or "some weather we're having."

Perhaps we always see these incidents for what they are; wrong place, wrong time, freak occurrences our heroes don't suffer. We then go even further to assume these players come back from their downfalls with the accidents behind them, both physically and mentally.

Anyone watching Sunday who thinks that's the case -- that Ben and Palmer are anything near what they were -- is sadly ignorant. What's more, anyone who thinks Cincinnati's 28-20 "win" over Pittsburgh is a step in the right direction has been drinking lead-based paint. Neither team deserved to win this game, and the only positive result anyone will yield from watching it again will be Indianapolis, New England, Jacksonville and Baltimore. All four of them will be licking their chops for a shot at either team come January -- and that's only on the off-chance either of these teams qualify for the playoffs.

It looked like Roethlisberger hung out with Chris Simms all week, learning how to master futility. Palmer must have spent his time preparing with Daunte Culpepper, and began fumbling as if the ball was covered in axle grease.

Yes, Cincinnati won the game. But massive doubt has entered the minds of fans of both teams. That doubt is the manifestation of the fears of major injuries both sustained over the last nine months.

Roethlisberger has clearly lost his impeccable rhythm and precision on intermediate routes and when he's outside the pocket. Palmer's body language suggested he would rather have been on the front lines in Fallujah than in the pocket against the vaunted Steelers pass rush. Neither were effective, don't kid yourselves.

Neither looked anywhere near where they were when the AFC North was beginning to become the Division of the Quarterback.

Sure, the argument can be made that Palmer's four touchdown passes hardly reflect someone who has lost something. But a slew of bad passes, his lack of ability to escape pressure and a seemingly intentional desire to drop the ball at critical moments don't give one a strong sense of his ability to take his team back to the top of the AFC North.

Roethlisberger backed up his worst game as a passer (in Jacksonville) with his new worst game as a passer. Along the same lines of optimism as Palmer, Ben's got nowhere to go but up because he can't get any worse than he has been the last two games.

The main question surrounding both of these teams is how recovered are these franchise players? The injuries are clearly lingering both mentally and physically.

Faint strands of "Ben's head bounced off a car windshield and he never recovered" begin to surface. Equally as strong, "Palmer just never quite got his confidence in the pocket back" starts mildly calling. But mistake you not, something is wrong with both of them. And neither is poised to lead his team to a championship after Week 3.

Roethlisberger threw a ridiculous interception in the end zone in the first quarter, where a touchdown would have put even an offense as talented as Cincinnati's in a huge hole early. Palmer limp-wristed a throw on an out pattern -- a throw that requires serious velocity, not a Lamar Latrell impersonation -- that gave CB Deshea Townsend the easiest interception of his life.

Roethlisberger threw an even wiser interception into the end zone again, this time in the fourth quarter with the game in the balance. Palmer could not tell right from left in the second half, crumbling under the pressure, and looking like an undrafted rookie from Gudger College instead of Peyton Manning's heir apparent to the MVP trophy.

There were instances like this throughout the game. Pittsburgh's defense rarely ever loses games with that kind of dominance (80 plays to Cincinnati's 57). Palmer really did just enough to win one of his worst games as a football player -- not that it takes Johnny Unitas to throw the ball high to athletic receivers after one of his opponents' many turnovers.

So really, Palmer and Roethlisberger's showings Sunday didn't answer the question "who is going to win the AFC North?" like people thought it would. Their performances really only replaced that question with "Is there going to be a Wild Card team from the AFC North?"

Pittsburgh gets a bye week to recover from a dreadful two-game stretch, while the Bengals get to celebrate their win-with-a-losing-effort over Pittsburgh with a matchup against New England in Week 4. I'm willing to bet neither team is going to post a win next Sunday. But the Steelers might cover the spread.

Looking at the game from a broader perspective -- which is going to be rare, considering the voracity of the fans on both side -- Cincinnati was able to win due to a lack of Ricardo Colclough and Verron Haynes on their roster. Both quarterbacks took enough off the table to make Aaron Brooks look like a Pro Bowl player.

For the Steelers, perhaps a nice break will help Ben remember what made him great. Or maybe, it will help him remember anything at all.

For the Bengals, Charlie in Top Gun said it the best.

"The encounter was scored as a victory, but I think we've shown it as an example of what not to do."

You think Baltimore isn't just loving all this right now?