There are some things in life you can never do twice: You can’t lick a metal pole outdoors when it’s fifteen degrees, you can’t close a padlock backwards on a locker, and most of all, you can’t lose twice to the Steelers if you want to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year. The Bengals knew this, but, worryingly, so did the Steelers, and what followed was inevitably a game of attrition.
Yes, the Bengals haven’t had back to back playoff seasons since 1981-82, but when I spoke to several players—linebackers Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard and Vinny Rey, DB Jason Allen and others—back during training camp, what struck me was that, as painfully aware of these sort of statistics as every Bengals fan is, the players are equally unaware. Those awful ’90s and inept ’00s are simply irrelevant to them. As Howard pointed out, and what now still rings true for QB Andy Dalton, WRs A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, O-linemen Kevin Zeitler, Trevor Robinson, Clint Boling, RB BenJarvis Green-Ellis and others: “I dunno about all that. In my time here we’ve made the playoffs every year.”
That this is still true is credited to a defensive performance for the ages. Bengals fans have been so used to seeing their D-lineman ready to take down Steelers QB Roethlisberger—only to have them bounce off as he trips, skids, slips, and suddenly launches a 45-yard bomb to a finally open receiver—that when All-Universe DT Geno Atkins ploughed Roethlisberger to the turf to end the Steelers’ first drive, it perhaps should have been a sign of things to come.
Indeed, the Bengals even got a lucky break from the refs, or perhaps I should say, the NFL rules, when their own opening drive was extended thanks to a 15-yard penalty on the Steelers for “excessive celebration”. This is a league that permitted the Steelers to play two games this year dressed as bumblebees, that allows said player to style himself based on ‘Vulcan’ from Flash Gordon, but when his knee touches the ground in a moment of happiness, that they don’t like?
Yes, the Bengals made mistakes. Personally, I liked Marvin’s decision to go for it on 4th and 22, as somebody high up in the organization ought to be blessed with ambition, however mental it is. But superstar A.J. Green was not on his A-game, dropping difficult catches for humans, but ones that we expect him to make, and losing a vital fumble. That said, it says something when you think a guy with over 100 yards and the game-winning catch had an iffy game. Dalton threw an interception to start the second half, and most egregiously Marvin Lewis asked Kicker Josh Brown to make a 56-yard field goal with three minutes to play, despite the fact that Brown had never made that long of a kick in his life, and despite the fact that nobody had ever come close that long of a field goal at Heinz Field ever. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
Fortunately the Bengals weren’t the only ones making mistakes, the notoriously intellectual Steeler fans holding up a sign to TE Heath Miller that said simply “Heeeeeth”. Probably just as well they didn’t attempt “Polamalu.”
Despite these issues, however, Mike Zimmer’s defence fought the Bengals into the postseason. Leon Hall played Robin Hood, slipping from behind Miller to run an interception back for a score; Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Michael Johnson, supported by Domata Peko, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers, made Roethlisberger’s afternoon a misery, battering him physically and mentally, making key play after key play, compounded when, with only seconds remaining, the beleagured QB lofted the ball into the waiting arms of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson. The Bengals still needed a big play to have a shot at a game-winning field goal, and it was time for two men to make a statement about themselves, about the Bengals, and about the future of the AFC North. Dalton’s throw was immaculate, Green’s route and hands equally so, and all that remained was for Josh Brown to kick us to the post season which he comfortably did.
So there we have it. The Bengals are in the playoffs. And, for all the criticism of Marvin Lewis, it should be noted that over the past four years, only the Patriots and Ravens have made the post-season more than the Bengals.
Final Score: Bengals 13 Steelers 10
Man Of The Match: The whole defense was amazing. Geno Atkins plays like a MotM every single game, and I was tempted to hand it to Mike Zimmer for a perfectly called game. That said, Leon Hall set the tone for the game, picking off Big Ben and, as he has done since the Giants game, removing the big play from opposing headline receivers.