Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (10) makes a 10-yard touchdown reception against Cincinnati Bengals’ Dre Kirkpatrick (27) during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.Gary LandersAP
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CINCINNATI — Of all the wild finishes in the history of wild card weekend, what transpired in the final two minutes at Paul Brown Stadium late Saturday could’ve been the best there ever was.
Instead, Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win against Cincinnati will be remembered as the ugliest playoff finish ever.
Two minutes. Two turnovers. Two bone-headed personal fouls by Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones capped what a Reese’s Pieces crowd of 63,257 black, gold and orange-clad fans watched unfold under a driving rain for almost four hours.
This, this was ugly to the last drop.
“Pretty crazy,” Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger said. “Those last two minutes or whatever it was; absolutely bizarre. Just there’s no quit in this team. I’m proud of them.”
This should be Roethlisberger’s Willis Reed-like moment, the one where he returned from a shoulder injury to lead the game-winning two-minute drill at the right time to put the Steelers in the AFC divisional playoffs against Denver next week.
Instead it’s all about what happened when Roethlisberger left the field in the first place. Burfict sacked Roethlisberger, who had to be carted off. Cincinnati fans booed and threw trash.
You won't remember Martavis Bryant’s incredible touchdown catch that he controlled with his legs in the third quarter. You will remember the back-to-back turnovers in the final two minutes. Burfict intercepted Landry Jones and ran the length of the field the opposite direction. Then Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill promptly fumbled on the next play.
You won’t remember Roethlisberger’s fourth-and-2 conversion to Antonio Brown on the final drive. You’ll remember the back-to-back boneheaded personal fouls by Jones and Burfict that set up the Steelers’ game-winning field goal and their subsequent lack of accountability in the locker room via Instagram or interviews afterward. Those actions will get lost in a flood of social media vile lit with code words that will turn that last sequence into an amateur sociology class.
Keep it simple. Jones and Burfict messed up big time. They cost the Bengals the game. They should be held accountable, even if Bengals coach Marvin Lewis won’t do it himself.
“I’m not going to single out our guys,” Lewis said. “We had enough chances to win the football game.”
You will remember the eight personal fouls and unsportsmanlike penalties, especially the one where Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak shoved Bengals safety Reggie Nelson in the first quarter. You won’t remember the remarkable 16-point fourth-quarter comeback led by AJ McCarron, whose touchdown pass to A.J. Green with 1:50 remaining briefly gave the Bengals a 16-15 lead.
You won’t remember the game-winning field goal. You will remember Steelers players waving good-bye to the Bengals on the way out after another improbable playoff victory.
“It feels pretty good coming to Cincinnati and getting the win this way,” Roethlisberger said.
Maybe for the Steelers, but not for everybody else. It depends on your tolerance level, but the NFL’s nastiest rivalry is brewing here. That started in the regular-season games in Pittsburgh with Burfict and Mike Mitchell, and in Cincinnati with a pregame scuffle involving both teams. There’s nothing wrong with a divisional rivalry, and this one offers shades of what could be a better rivalry than Steelers-Ravens.
“I thought we both represented the AFC North and what the AFC North is about tonight,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
It’s OK to dislike — maybe even hate — the team across from you. Until it steps over the line, and it did that on the field and off the field one too many times Saturday. That takes away from what should be viewed as one of the most-memorable finishes ever.
But isn’t that the NFL in a nutshell? It’s three-plus hours of ugly, brutal and sometimes unwatchable play with just enough remarkable athletic brilliance spliced in to keep us going. You can either act appalled at every personal foul, every late hit, every middle finger waving from the stands, or you can see it for what it is.
It’s the best-and-worst kind of entertainment out there. Everybody will be talking about this game well into next week. Not for what went right. But what went oh-so terribly wrong.
“Intense,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “You go through a lot of emotions when you deal with a game like that. A lot of stuff going on. There’s a saying, ‘Cooler heads prevailed.’”