Cincinnati's season came to an abrupt end with a 24-14 loss to the New York Jets (10-7). It was the second consecutive one-and-done postseason for the Bengals (10-7). Cincinnati also suffered a quick hook after winning the division in 2005.
But the Bengals felt this season would be different.
Cincinnati’s locker room was more professional. Core players such as Palmer and receiver Chad Ochocinco were more experienced, and this team -- with a strong defense and running game -- appeared to be built to thrive this time of year.
"We had such big plans," a shocked Palmer said. "We had such great expectations for ourselves."
In an awkward playoff game, Cincinnati's season came crashing down in a rash of errors.
The Jets forced two Cincinnati turnovers (one interception, one fumble). Bengals kicker Shayne Graham missed two second-half field goals, and coach Marvin Lewis failed on two challenges that blew a pair of timeouts in the first half.
Add in several blown assignments on both sides of the ball, and it was a recipe for postseason disaster.
"Because of the quality of the team you face in the playoffs, missed opportunities, turnovers in the red zone, whatever it might be, they are very hard to overcome," Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said.
With a steady defense and solid running game led by rookie Shonn Greene (135 yards, one touchdown), the Jets shortened the game with each possession. New York dominated the field-position battle and eventually turned it into points, as the Jets scored 21 unanswered in the second and third quarters.
That was all the Jets needed on the road. Every time the Bengals tried to make a comeback, they would ruin it with self-inflicted mistakes.
Graham missed two field goals in Cincinnati's loss.
Graham's kicks in particular ended any hopes of a Bengals rally. He missed two fairly routine field goal attempts of 42 and 28 yards in the second half that kept the game out of reach. Graham was the team's designated franchise player this season.
"There isn’t anything you can say about that," Lewis said. "When you miss the field goal, you miss the field goal. It is a shame, and it killed us. Unfortunately, in this case, it is mostly a one-man operation and that is the sad part of it."
The Bengals liked this matchup entering the game. But many of the advantages they thought they had did not pan out.
Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, who has been inconsistent all season, had a near-perfect game, completing 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. He had a 139.4 passer rating.
Cincinnati also ran the ball well with tailback Cedric Benson, who had 169 rushing yards. But the Bengals fell to 6-1 this season when Benson has more than 100 rushing yards.
The general feeling in Cincinnati's locker room was the Bengals let a golden opportunity get away.
"There's only one team that feels good in the end, and it won't be us," Bengals linebacker Brandon Johnson said.
The playoff drought continues for the Bengals, who haven’t won a postseason game since the 1990 season. But in many ways this was a landmark season for the franchise.
Cincinnati has a good, young nucleus of players and ran roughshod through the AFC North, going 6-0. The team also overcame a pair of tragedies in the passing of wide receiver Chris Henry and Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
The Bengals haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1975-76, so expect a lot of doubters next fall. But the players are confident this team is finally built for long-term success.
"How can you not like the foundation and the things that we've done?" Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones said. "We’re one of the youngest football teams to make it to the playoffs and swept the division. We've done a lot of phenomenal things. It's just in the end, we didn't do that one phenomenal thing, and that's to continue."
The last time the Bengals were in this position, it took four years to bounce back from a playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It will be up to Cincinnati's leaders, such as Palmer and Jones, to make sure this organization continues to stay on the upswing.
It won't be easy. The Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are consistent threats in the division. The Cleveland Browns also finished the season with four straight wins and have newfound optimism with the arrival of team president Mike Holmgren.
The Bengals were good enough to make the playoffs this season. But their quick exit Saturday proved that they are far from an elite team.
"We definitely got a lot of work to do," Palmer said. "We definitely have a young team. I think someone said we were the third-youngest team in the league. In order for us to be where we expect to be, we got to improve."