In 2002, Gatorade released a commercial detailing the legendary origin of its legendary thirst quencher, narrated by and starring legendary sportscaster Keith Jackson. The ad concludes with Jackson, in his peppy Southern drawl, articulating straight into the camera: “And just as the games never end, so the legend continues.”
I love that. For some reason, my dad and I sort of adopted the phrase, one of us saying or texting it to the other when something crazy or hilariously predictable or in any way noteworthy happened in the world of sports—and usually, in reference to the Bengals. There’s never been a lack of opportunities to use it.
As a Bengals fan, Saturday night had all the makings of one of those opportunities. I didn’t have a good feeling leading up to the playoff game. It’s just football, I’m fully aware, and there are far more dire and important things in this world than that. But still.
I was excited, I was hoping for the best, I just didn’t think the team was going to be able to pull off a victory. Not with AJ McCarron starting. Not against the Steelers.
And I was right. But it was so much worse than I could have ever imagined.
If space aliens landed on earth and needed a quick crash course about what it’s like to root for the Cincinnati Bengals, one could simply show them the film from Saturday’s playoff defeat. That game was a microcosm of Bengals fandom, somehow inconceivable and typical all at the same time. It had everything.
There was the listless start—which lasted almost three full quarters—including a stagnant offense that seemed to go possessions at a time without realizing AJ Green was on the team. Whether accurate or not, it was another playoff performance that felt like Marvin Lewis and his staff were overmatched and outcoached.
There were questionable calls by the officials and a familiar feeling that the Steelers were being the bully and getting away with it, while the Bengals were hit with every possible infraction. There was Ryan Shazier knocking out Giovani Bernard with the crown of his helmet on a hit that received no penalty and forced a fumble—at the very least, if that’s not a penalty, then the earlier hit by Bengals safety Shawn Williams shouldn’t have been, either—after which Shazier danced around the field as Pittsburgh Steelers and fans alike swallowed massive gobs of irony, trouble free. There was coach/garbage human Joey Porter, standing in the middle of the field after Antonio Brown’s injury for no apparent reason other than to antagonize the opposing team while the officials stood watch. Whether accurate or not, any Bengals fan will tell you that they’ve long felt victimized by officiating.
There were the Bengals attempts to play the role of the bully, which for a long stretch felt ineffective, then briefly looked successful, before ultimately falling feeble and fruitless. They failed at the crucial aspect of being the bully—it has to work. You have to win. This is why the Steelers have been so successful at it for so long. Otherwise, all of the posturing, mean mugging, trash talking, and personal fouls just make you look like punks.
There was Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, clutching their pearls and defending the shield at all costs. Disagreeing with a flag thrown by an official—against either team, mind you—was strictly forbidden. All penalties were justified. All post-play scuffles were an affront to humanity, an open act of defiance against God Roger Goodell. Nantz did everything short of imploring America to hide the women and children anytime Vontaze Burfict appeared on screen.
There was the garbage throwing by a few idiotic fans, drunkenly doing their best to make Ben Roethlisberger a sympathetic figure. Be an adult. Don’t throw things on the field. (That’s what your middle fingers are for!)
There was the swinging of momentum onset by the Roethlisberger injury (on a clean tackle, believe it or not, despite Nantz’s best effort to get Burfict extradited to a Russian prison for the hit), followed by the euphoria of the AJ Green go ahead touchdown catch—blown Mike Mitchell tackle and all—and subsequent Burfict interception.
There was the brief respite of hope.
There was the inevitable crushing of said hope thanks to the Jeremy Hill fumble. At that moment, the game was over. Before Big Ben improbably trotted back on to the field (Landry Jones, we hardly knew ye), before history and destiny and stupidity caught up to Burfict and Adam Jones, before Joey Porter evaded the bowels of hell yet again, before Chris Boswell’s chip-shot field goal, and before McCarron’s final heave fell to the turf, it was already over. There are plenty of excuses, sure, plenty of complaints to level at the officials and the opponent, but in the end, the Bengals beat themselves. They perpetuated the stereotype, preserved the narrative. The outcome was obvious the instant that ball was yanked from Hill’s grasp. The Bengals made sure of it.
There was the pain of defeat, inconceivable and typical all at the same time.
Earlier this season, when the Bengals entered their bye week at a somewhat surprising 6-0 mark, fellow Fulcher 2 Stay editor Adam Flango and I cast the Bengals movie. It was a fun, tongue-in-cheek way to pass time during the team’s week off. But it was also a little intriguing when the eventual playoff matchup against the Steelers was set up in such a seemingly scripted manner: A rubber match in a season defined by each team’s hatred for one another, and only a day removed from the 10-year anniversary of the Carson Palmer injury, this time starring yet another Bengals backup quarterback. Flango and I even remarked on last week’s podcast that, if life were in fact a movie, the Bengals would win. The playoff drought, the similarities to a decade ago, the revenge aspect, the fact that the Steelers were the reason Andy Dalton wasn’t playing, the home underdogs—it was all set up for a storybook Bengals victory.
And for a moment, it actually appeared that things might work out that way. There was the swinging of momentum, the Big Ben injury, the AJ Green touchdown, the AJ McCarron dark horse storyline. It even seemed like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, two of the team’s and league’s most troubled, maligned, star-crossed players, would in fact achieve some level of redemption, with Jones’ clutch punt return setting up the go-ahead score and Burfict’s diving interception sealing the victory. For a moment, it actually appeared that they would be the heroes, that the Bengals curse was broken.
Except it wasn’t a movie. In the end, it was all too real.
Justin Williams is an associate editor for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, which he has been avoiding since Saturday night, at @Williams_Justin.