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.