By Dan Wetzel
January 10, 2016
(Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)
CINCINNATI – The rain and the temperatures had fallen, harder and harder, colder and colder, slapping down on Cincinnati fans huddled under orange parkas and makeshift rain gear.
They had witnessed a game in which the Bengals did nothing and were going to lose, and then did everything and were going to win, and then Jeremy Hill fumbled and Ben Roethlisberger returned. They were still standing but now they were screaming like they were watching a train wreck about to happen, tragedy and casualties assured. And in so many ways, they were.
The Bengals' fifth consecutive AFC wild-card game loss began with the resignation that an Andy Dalton-less defeat was likely to happen. It then ended with enraged disbelief that it had.
Pittsburgh 18, Cincinnati 16, not just a loss for the Bengals but a postseason meltdown perhaps never seen before, a self-inflicted stomach punch that this franchise, or at least its current leadership, may never survive.
In a game overwhelmed by anarchy, center it all on Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals' mercurial linebacker, as talented as any player but undrafted because of his emotional instability. He plays the game on an edge, played this game on the edge, finding himself in every fight but then delivering on that ability.
He sent Roethlisberger off on a cart at the end of the third quarter, holding his arm after taking a critical sack. It changed the game's dynamics and momentum, with Cincy reeling off 16 unanswered points, as AJ McCarron found some competency.
Burfict picked off Steelers back-up Landry Jones late in the fourth quarter, a play that should have clinched it. Afterward, he took the ball, ran the length of the field and right up the tunnel in celebration as Paul Brown Stadium reached a level of pandemonium that can only be born from the improbable.
Cincinnati led 16-15. Ball on the Pittsburgh 26 and just 1:36 remaining. It was over. It should have been over. It had to be over.
Burfict is the Bengals, though. Burfict is the franchise, a rollicking gamble that at some point, in some way believes fortune will work out, that every headache will be worth it, that every self-destruction will be avenged.
And then in the most desperate of moments, it doesn't. That Burfict-led defense, the one with running mate Adam Jones, the one that is violent and vicious enough to win a heated playoff game (seven combined personal fouls, brutal injuries, even a Steeler assistant coach getting physical) can lose it too.
First Hill fumbled when ball security, not yardage mattered. "Just gave the game away," Hill said. Then a slumped-armed Roethlisberger returned. He'd come back to the sideline earlier but sat out with the injury. Now he was back in.
"Coach came to me and asked me if I could do it," Roethlisberger said. "I said I would give it everything I've got."
He took over at the Steelers' 9-yard line but had no strength in his arm. At one point a deep pass was called and he had to run over to the sideline and tell them, "I can't throw that far." Yet through little passes and a couple of runs, he was Willis Reed-ing the Steelers down the field. He made it to the Bengals' 47-yard line, 22 seconds remaining; screams of horror in the stands.
With the moments precious, Roethlisberger had to make a play. So he heaved it with everything toward Antonio Brown. The pass was high and harmless. Only there was Burfict, lowering his shoulder and helmet into Brown's, a defenseless receiver laid out, an unnecessary roughness call at the most unnecessarily dumbest time. Suddenly the six tackles, the cart-off sack, the forced fumble from earlier, the would-be closer of an interception was history.
Emotions boiled over again, Bengals and Steelers on the field, pushing and shouting and acting like this was some meaningless preseason game and pride, not field position, mattered. Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter, a longtime Steeler linebacker, was there too, ostensibly trying to hold players back and keep the peace.
Burfict was jawing with everyone, carrying it on. Then came Jones, losing his mind and pushing Porter, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at a time even more outrageously stupid than Burfict's play.
"You have to have better control than that," offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said.
It should have been Steelers at the 47, 18 seconds and no timeouts left with a quarterback who could hardly throw. Instead the Bengals chose to give them 30 yards in penalties, chose to hand them a 35-yard field goal to win it, chose to be whatever they consider tough guys and wind up losers again.
"Ref did a horrible [expletive] job," Jones ranted later in an Instagram post he deleted later in the evening. "You got [Joey expletive] Porter in the middle of the [expletive] field talking [expletive] to everybody and then when somebody says something to him … he ain't supposed to be on the [expletive] field."
It's always someone else's fault of course. It's always something else, of course.
"That's why Adam pushed him," Burfict said. "[Porter] shouldn't be on the field cussing us out. The ref heard it all but the ref threw the flag on Adam."
It dawned on neither player that they shouldn't have drilled Brown in the head or cared what some retired player was or wasn't saying in the moment.
Is Porter supposed to be on the field? Maybe the better question is whether he is supposed to be headed to Denver next week for another game, maybe with Roethlisberger and Brown, maybe without, but his team still alive regardless? What possibly could someone say that was worth a playoff game?
"We destructed on ourselves," coach Marvin Lewis said. "Offense and defense together."
Lewis has always covered for his guys, always forgiven his guys, always thought he could find a way to control them. Only he couldn't. Only he can't. In the most critical moments of the most critical game it all comes undone, a lack of fundamentals and discipline doing them in.
The Bengals have also covered for Lewis, always felt he was good enough, even as the wild-card losses, now six in seven years, piled up. What about this time though, when a lack of restraint and resolve, things that should've long ago been curbed by a veteran coach's system, delivered a defeat worse than all the others combined?
A season that started 8-0 and got to 10-2 until Dalton broke his thumb had a shot of breaking through, had a shot at continuing. Make it through the punt-filled first half, through the knockout of Gio Bernard, through the years of futility and frustration. Survive and advance to New England, end the playoff-losing streak, maybe get Dalton back, take a shot at the Patriots. Just don't lose the ball. Just don't lose your cool.
Three quarters of hopelessness had yielded to something out of Cincinnati's wildest dreams.
Then came the nightmare. Then came the Bengals.
Then came the fans shuffling out, the rain falling harder and harder, colder and colder, with each bitter step.