We'll obviously never know what would have happened had Palmer not gone down on that fateful day two years ago. We don't know if we'd have seen the Carson Palmer from December 4th of 2005 (3 TD/0 INT, 101.5 Passer Rating vs. Pitt) or the guy who played on October 16th (0 TD/2 INT, 53.8 PR). I just think that too often we, as fans, rush to assume the former while discounting the latter possibility.
A guy like Roethisberger is a case in point. While I would have preferred to have a completely healthy Big Ben last season, the Steelers didn't finish 8-8 solely because Ben was coming back from a couple major issues. And the Bengals aren't missing the playoffs for the second year in a row due to the lack of a healthy Carson Palmer.
As for the Bengals' defense? Well, it didn't just start to suck. The Bengals have been in the bottom quarter of the NFL for the past three years.
They are sporadically explosive offensively. Good term. A lot of that has to do with Ben's ability to stretch out plays (see, I do think players matter) in order to allow receivers to separate, but also the maturization of Santonio Holmes, and more of a focus on distributing the ball to Heath Miller (and other TE) in the passing game. Add in the fact that Roethlisberger is maturing as well (he throws the ball away when necessary a LOT more often now) and you have many factors. That being said, if the Steelers haven't adequately prepared themselves for Ben going down- especially knowing that being sacked nearly 50 times allows a pretty good chance of that happening- then they're stupid.Your assessment of the Steelers was terrific- my only point is that they appear to be sporadically expolsive, which can be dangerous in the playoffs. How they do it I have no idea, but they have been putting up some points.
And the pass rush you worry about is better with Polamalu on the field- oh, that's right people getting hurt doesn't really affect things.
However, the pass rush is bad regardless of the presence of Polamalu. In Pittsburgh's scheme, the LB's are supposed to generate the rush, with an occasional corner blitz. Polamalu is sent from time to time, but the lack of pressure from the LB corps has posted a return of exactly 0 Sacks from Troy this season. James Harrison has stepped up this season and James Farrior is his usual dependable self, but Clark Haggans and Larry Foote appear to have regressed. Harrison, at times, is the only rusher who'll draw a double-team from the offense. Don't even get me started on the offensive line.