That one second changed everything.
The Steelers (12-5) will play in Indianapolis next Sunday, a chance to show how far they've come in the past month. Pittsburgh lost at the RCA Dome 26-7 on Nov. 28, when coach Bill Cowher started the second half with a failed onside kick that seemed to be a sign of desperation.
"We're the underdogs going into their place," said Ben Roethlisberger, who threw three touchdown passes. "Now we get to see what we can do."
Defending Super Bowl champion New England will play in Denver on Saturday night.
The Bengals (11-6) will spend an offseason reliving the play that effectively scuttled their first playoff appearance in 15 years -- and could have a longer-lasting impact. Palmer tore the anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that requires surgery and months of tough rehabilitation. The Bengals are hoping he's recovered by training camp in July.
"I was really upset," receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "Not because of the fact we lost him. He's young and he's got to go through so much now tearing his knee. It's just sad for that to happen. He was playing great."
The Bengals were initially angered and inspired by the injury, but the emotion lasted only so long. They faded during the third quarter, when they started bungling and the Steelers acted like they'd been to the playoffs before.
"We had that letdown, we didn't get that (second-half) field goal and it kind of deflated us," said Kitna, who took over for Palmer and spent most of his time scrambling. "We never recovered from that."
Pittsburgh was in jeopardy of not making the playoffs after a 38-31 loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field effectively gave Cincinnati the AFC North title. The Steelers won their last four to get in as a wild card.
In his second playoff go-round, Roethlisberger was coolly efficient -- 14-of-19 for 208 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, a vast improvement over his shaky rookie postseason.
"Last year, everything was new to Ben," said receiver Hines Ward, who had a 5-yard touchdown catch. "Tonight, he was pretty crisp. The intangibles that he brings, I like a lot."
The crowd of 65,870 erupted, then went sickeningly silent on the Bengals' first pass play -- one that went down as the longest in Cincinnati playoff history, and the costliest.
Palmer held onto the ball long enough to let Henry beat a defender down the right sideline for a 66-yard catch. As the ball left Palmer's hand, a falling Von Oelhoffen's shoulder drove into the quarterback's left knee.
"I knew right away that it was bad," said Palmer, who was on crutches after the game. "I felt my whole knee pop. I didn't feel a lot of pain. It was just a sickening feeling because I knew what it was and that my season was over."
Even though Palmer wears a protective brace, his knee bowed inward as it was hit. He had to be taken off on a cart.
"You watch it happen, my thoughts and prayers go out to Carson," Roethlisberger said. "You could see Kimo was stumbling going down. He's not that kind of player. Carson's a great player. Any time you lose a great player like him, it's devastating."
Several Bengals yelled at Von Oelhoffen, who spent his first six seasons in Cincinnati and still counts some of the Bengals as friends.
"Guys were infuriated," right tackle Willie Anderson said. "But I know him. He's not a dirty player. His momentum just kept him going into Carson. It wasn't a dirty play."
The nose tackle explained himself on the field.
"They had every right to be upset. They lost their best player," he said. "I hope Carson gets better. My apologies to him and his family.
"I was worried about Carson. That kid deserved to play this game."
Now, it was up to Palmer's mentor to get it done. He couldn't.
Kitna led the Bengals to an 8-8 finish in coach Marvin Lewis' first season, then took a back seat to Palmer the last two seasons. He played sparingly this season and was understandably rusty in a 37-3 loss to Kansas City last week.
Kitna, one of only 13 Bengals with playoff experience, finished 24-of-40 for 197 yards with two interceptions and four sacks. He kept the Bengals in it until their inexperience and lack of a Pro Bowl quarterback started to show in the third quarter.
First, the Bengals botched a field goal attempt because of a high snap. Then, Kitna knocked the ball out of his own hand while scrambling, scuttling a drive. Finally, a shanked 30-yard punt -- something out of the old Bungles days -- put the Steelers in position to take control.
Three plays later, they used a little sleight-of-snap to do just that.
Antwaan Randle El took a direct snap in front of Roethlisberger, ran to his right, turned and threw the ball back to the quarterback. Cedrick Wilson was 10 yards beyond the confused coverage for his 43-yard touchdown catch that put the Steelers up 28-17.
That was it.
- Ward has caught a touchdown pass in each of his last five playoff games.
- Pittsburgh has won seven of its last nine against Cincinnati and 10 of its last 13. The Steelers have won their last five games at Paul Brown Stadium.
- It was the Steelers' first road win in the playoffs since 1989. They had been 0-3 on the road under Cowher. Overall, they're 9-9 in the playoffs under their head coach.
- Henry hurt his right knee on the long pass, then aggravated it a few plays later and had to be helped off the field. He was on crutches in the second half.