It was a loss that will linger and may – just may – return the Bengals to the laughing stock status of the past, back when they were primarily known for poor judgment.
CINCINNATI — The Bengals lost more than a football game Saturday night. They lost face.
In a disgraceful display of hostility and selfishness, they threw away the chance to win their first playoff game since 1990, and continued a string of seven straight first-round playoff losses.
They had it. It was all tucked away. All they had to do was play smart, play safe – run out the clock – and above all else, not do anything stupid. It proved to be too much to ask.
Instead, it ended with a flourish of personal fouls committed by Vontaze Burfict that set up a 35-yard field goal by Chris Boswell. Naturally, he hit it. Steelers win, 18-16.
The game was lost and so was the respect the Bengals had earned in the course of a 12-4 season.
“To get back in it, to take the lead and then lose it like we did, well, it’s disappointing,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.
“It’s gonna be hard to win games when we can’t control our composure,” said quarterback A.J. McCarron. “I wanted to bring the city its first playoff win (since 1988), but instead this just sucks.”
It was sad. It was possibly the worst loss in team history, but it was also somehow typical of a franchise that simply cannot find its way to a championship caliber of football.
If it’s not one thing, it’s another. But this went way beyond an inability to run the ball or manage the clock, anything pertaining to what we regard as pure football.
Saturday night, it was a complete departure from poise and composure and character, qualities key to the concept of professionalism; the quality their founder – the legendary Paul Brown – lived by and demanded, above all else, from his players.
Had Brown witnessed the disintegration that took place in the final two minutes or so of this game, he would have been up all night cleaning out lockers and handing out blue slips.
In the closing moments of the game, the Bengals took pro football off the field into a bleak, back alley. All that was missing was broken glass, and they would have had that too had the bottles fans threw on the field not been plastic.
It was that kind of game, one that ripped away at the respect the Bengals finally began to receive during this 12-4 season.
Afterward, Burfict trotted off the field seemingly oblivious to what he had cost his team. Adam Jones sat on a bench weeping. The majority of the Bengal players appeared to be stunned. The locker-room looked “like a bomb went off,” as Bengals analyst Dave Lapham put it. Most players retreated to areas off limits to reporters and cameras.
“It’s hard to lose like that,” said A.J. Green, “to fight back, to play your heart out, to take the lead and then – it’s just gone.”
After failing to generate any offense in the first half—two first downs and 56 total yards—the Bengals trailed 6-0 at half. The Steelers made it 15-0 on another Boswell field goal and a catch by Martavus Bryant worthy of any Harlem Globetrotter stunt.
The Bengals finally put things together in the fourth. Jeremy Hill capped a 46-yard drive with a one-yard run to put the Bengals on the scoreboard and Mike Nugent added a 35-yard field goal to make it 15-10 Steelers.
As time began to tick away, Adam Jones got them going with a 24-yard punt return. That led to an impressive connection – McCarron to Green – for a six-point lead. The Bengals went for two, but the attempt failed.
Still, they had the lead and they had something else on their side. Ben Roethlisberger had been forced out of the game when he was sacked and driven to the ground by Burfict on a perfectly clean tackle.
Then, every thing seem to accelerate at a dizzying pace Burfict intercepted a Landry Jones pass giving the Bengals the ball and the game. All they had to do was play it safe and smart.
On the first play from scrimmage, Hill fumbled the ball and the Steelers recovered.
There was 1:23 left in the game. At that point, Roethlisberger returned to the game. Clearly, he was limited having jammed his right shoulder and his ability to throw the deep ball appeared questionable.
He dinked-and-dunked his way down the field and then on first and 10 from the Bengals 49 threw to Antonio Brown. The pass was high, maybe uncatchable. Chris Lewis-Harris had the play covered. The ball drifted away from Brown, and the game changed – dramatically.
Burfict blew him up. He lowered his head shelled him. His head bounced around like a bobble-head doll. He lay on the ground lifeless for a moment.
As flags flew, confusion reigned and another flag hit the ground. Assistant Steeler coach Joe Porter was among those tending to Brown. Jones confronted him. There was a push, words. Result: two personal fouls, Burfict and Jones. Thirty yards in penalties and no time taken off the clock.
“It was a really emotional game, I’m not surprised,” the Steelers Ryan Shazier said. “They seen the dam breaking and their emotions got to them.”
The result was Boswell lining up the “gimme” field goal, the winner.
The greater result was a loss that will linger and may – just may – return the Bengals to the laughing stock status of the past, back when they were primarily known for poor judgment.
Oddly enough, none among the Bengals pointed a finger in the aftermath. Certainly, not Lewis.
“We win as a team and we lose as a team,” Green said. “That’s the way it is.” There was no conviction in his voice. He sounded like a man reading from a cue card, adhering to the company line.
It was a sad, sad night, and we haven’t even talked about the fans that booed Roethlisberger when he was taken off the field on a golf cart.