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Opinion: Cincinnati Bengals meltdown shows character ultimately trumps talent

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (5) passes against the San Francisco 49ers in the second quarter at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 20.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (5) passes against the San Francisco 49ers in the second quarter at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 20. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

With a little under two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, leading the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-15, it seemed that after so long, the Cincinnati Bengals were finally going to end their playoff winless streak that dates back to January 1991.

Putting the length of that abysmal streak into greater perspective, in 1991 the price of gas was $1.14 a gallon, the president was George H.W. Bush, and “Home Alone” was No. 1 at the box office.

Nonetheless, in embarrassing fashion, the Bengals’ streak was further extended yet another year. The deflating loss left Cincinnati’s fans with an all-too-familiar feeling, as they watched their team go out like the hapless “Bungals” rather than the proud Bengals who looked destined for a deep playoff run during much of the season.

There was no love lost between the two teams Saturday night as the fierce rivalry rose to new, unprecedented heights. Dominating defenses, devastating hits, near-brawls and a combined 18 penalty flags were thrown, many of which were personal fouls. Although it was an ugly contest on both sides, it is the Bengals that will be remembered for choking away a sure-victory in such historically disgraceful fashion.

After a rough-and-tumble first three quarters, with Cincinnati down 15-0 heading into the final period, quarterback A.J. McCarron quickly began an orange-and-black charge that had Paul Brown Stadium, widely known as “The Jungle,” in a frenzy. McCarron and Co. soon took back the lead when the second-year signal caller tossed a 25-yard touchdown pass to wideout A.J. Green late in the game. The comeback seemed all but complete when linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who injured Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earlier in the night on a sack, intercepted backup Landry Jones deep in Pittsburgh territory. Just as the Bengals looked to have finally broken the sixth-longest postseason drought in NFL history, the meltdown ensued.

Almost as quickly as Cincinnati had the ball, it gave it right back to its hated rivals when running back Jeremy Hill was stripped on the opening play of the drive by former Ohio State standout Ryan Shazier. The Steelers indeed recovered the fumble when a first down would have effectively ended the game. Despite being carted off the field and taken to the locker room earlier, Roethlisberger came back out for a final chance at victory and led the Pittsburgh offense from its own 9-yard line to just past midfield. It would need to go further, but it didn’t have to do it on its own. The Bengals did it for them.

Roethlisberger overthrew receiver Antonio Brown over the middle on the very next play, where Brown’s head would violently meet Burfict’s shoulder, concussing the Steelers’ star wideout. A 15-yard penalty was handed out, with a possible suspension now pending. The hit was as dirty as any, something that has become Burfict’s calling card. He argued the call for some minutes after and, like all game long, couldn’t keep his emotions together, especially when it mattered most. Neither could cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, who received a personal foul after getting into it with Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter. Thirty penalty yards later, kicker Chris Boswell drilled a 35-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh an improbable wild-card round victory.

It was an embarrassing display of sportsmanship — or lack thereof. It was, in fact, disgusting, mainly on the Bengals’ part. All game long, coach Marvin Lewis, now the owner of a winless 0-7 record in the playoffs, failed to keep his players in check, specifically Burfict, who played on the edge most of the night. The lack of emotional restraint and composure boiled over to the point of implosion, costing Cincinnati a spot in the divisional round of the playoffs. Fans in “The Jungle” were almost as disgraceful, as they were seen pelting the turf, as well as Roethlisberger during his cart ride to the locker room, with plastic bottles and other debris.

When it comes down to it, sure, Burfict racked up six tackles, a clutch sack of Roethlisberger and had what should have been a game-ending interception. Even Jones had a 24-yard punt return to set the Bengals offense up with good field position in the closing stages. And yet, Saturday night’s meltdown in Cincinnati proved that the content of your character always overcomes talent, something that might end up costing Lewis his job as coach of the Bengals.


  1. Woody Hayes would be proud of your opinion of Character. Two Pittsburg ‘coaches’ attacked players, one on the field … many have shared the rule… OSU Shazier launches helmed first and takes out the bengals best running back, the refs give the ball to Pittsburg… defenseless receiver is not the call as the clueless announcers state, its leading with a helmet, and then Shazier grinding his junk on the sidelines. Those three should be banned from the NFL. I wont go into the ‘game ball’ rumors as no idea if true. Net, the referees GAVE the game to Pittsburg. The Burfict hit was a penalty but far from dirty, his job is to knock the ball out if caught, too quick to determine, as Jones says, watch it in slow motion, intent matters, in thos case the receiver didnt catch the ball and dove to prepare for a hit, Burfict did hit the helmet with a shoulder pad which is a penalty. The uncalled Penalty on the Pittsburg coach which was 100% clear as that is all the Bengals were pointing out to the Pittsburg payroll Refs. That offsets the Burfict and Jones ‘no penalty without coach illegally on field’, and the Bengals win.

    I wonder why Clemson was not penalized and given the ball when Woody grabbed a player coming onto the field….wasnt he fired. Didnt Bosa get thrown out vs ND for much less then Shazier. The result should be overturned ‘Won’t happen just sticking to what should be done’.

    Ill end with the announcers, the were going after Burfict all game, when he sacked R they screamed ‘dirty’ even with the NFL in booth ref saying is was very clean. Burfict isnt perfect, he has a few late hits, including a few jock ones such as when it was called because the opposing player said he was pushed, didnt happen and ref didnt see but hated Burfict so threw flag ‘google it’.

    • Lol cmon fella. 2 steeler coaches attacked bengals players? Nelson actually pushed munchak first after he ran into him. Nelson was attempting to walk towards the running back that he pushed out of bounds and munchak went to grab his arm and accidentally caught a couple of those 3 foot braids in his hand which was already holding a play sheet.

      Porter didnt touch anyone, gilberry and burfict touched porter before gangsta ass pacman tried to hit him and made contact with a ref. And before you reply whining about how porter shouldnt have been out there i suggest tou check out a screen shot after the shazier hit where there were like 8 bengals coaches on the field plus half the players.

      Refs gave pittsburgh the game? You do realize the penalties were 10 for pittsburgh for 142 yards to 6 for 46 yards against cincy before the thugs self destructed? Including that crappy PI call that set the bengals first TD up.

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