Playoff Rubber Match: Bengals vs Steelers




Two weeks after I waxed on about the Bengals and timing, fate walked into Cincinnati and kicked down the doors of Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals had their chance to clinch a bye vs. the Broncos in Week 16, but an ineffective second-half offense did them in on Monday Night Football. And after what seemed like divine providence kept the Chargers—who could have sewn up a Bengals bye with a victory in Denver—from doing much of anything with five Bronco turnovers Sunday afternoon, we have our storyline-laced showdown.

Bengals vs. Steelers. The Purveyors of Playoff Suckitude vs. the franchise with more Lombardi trophies than anyone else.

To all Bengals fans whimpering about drawing the Steelers in the Wild Card round Saturday night, may I suggest an alternative approach: the hysterical defiance of Lieutenant Dan during Forrest Gump’s hurricane scene. (Two asides. One, hat tip to Cincy Jungle’s Joe Goodberry for the Gump reference. Two, I laugh out loud every time Gary Sinise madly bellows, ‘YOU CALL THIS A STORM?!”)

As the two teams collide for the third time in less than 10 weeks, we know that this game is both business and personal. Saturday night will mark a passage of 10 years and one day since Steelers defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into Carson Palmer’s knee during the last Cincinnati-Pittsburgh postseason tilt, a cruel day that kickstarted the Bengals’ decade of playoff despondence in the Marvin Lewis era.

But back to the Bengals’ 24-16 victory over the Ravens on Sunday for a second. Despite an immense clunker of a first half by both squads—the halftime showdown between local mascots vs. a peewee football team was far more entertaining, especially when Reds mascot Gapper went all J.J. Watt on the proceedings—gleaning positives from Sunday was uncomplicated.

For one, Vontaze Burfict was back to being a manimal Sunday, recording a season-high 12 tackles (eight solo), two quarterback hits, two passes defended, a tackle for loss, and an amazing interception that swung the game in Cincinnati’s favor for good. Burfict played in 90 percent of the Bengals defensive plays, achieving a season-high in snaps for the second consecutive week.

And, at long last, the running game got untracked. The Bengals averaged over five yards per tote on 27 carries, and were gaining nearly eight yards a pop before the offense went conservative following Jeremy Hill’s 38-yard touchdown scamper late in the third quarter. The run was Hill’s longest of the season—his previous long was 17—and the second-year running back enjoyed his best game of the season, coming within four yards of his first 100-yard performance of 2015 and averaging an even six yards a carry. Maybe the cure to the Bengals’ running game woes—they had averaged 1.9 and 3.3 yards per carry in Weeks 15 and 16, respectively—was installing Jake Fisher, their 6-6, 306-pound rookie tackle, as the new fullback. Cincinnati gained six yards per rush with Fisher in the game on Sunday.

Now back to this Saturday night. Whether it’s Andy Dalton, AJ McCarron, Keith Wenning or Gus Frerotte taking the snaps, the 2015 Bengals were constructed to win in spite of their quarterback. To take a post-Ravens quote from Adam Jones one step further, it’s time for the non-quarterback stars on this team to “step the bleep up.” Saturday can’t and shouldn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of Dalton or McCarron; it’s time for Jones, Burfict, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Geno Atkins, and the rest of the Bengals’ stars to carry this team.

The primetime (8-19 under Lewis, 1-3 this season, though the three defeats were by a combined 10 points) and playoff (last postseason win was Jan. 6, 1991; team is 0-for-6 in playoff games since) narratives will be bothersome for the Bengals all week. An under-the-radar storyline is that Saturday night could be the last night for this group, as the Bengals have 16 pending free agents, including Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith, Wallace Gilberry, Emmanuel Lamur, Vincent Rey, Adam Jones, Reggie Nelson, George Iloka, and Leon Hall. Quite obviously, Cincinnati can’t (and in some cases, shouldn’t) bring everyone back.

This particular group has been around for a long time. They’ve enjoyed a special season, and they are fully aware of stakes on Saturday night.

“We’re in the dance, and we’ve got to win,” Gilberry said Sunday. “It’s a new season, it’s a new year. Right now, we’re 1-0 in the new year, and if we stay undefeated, it means we’ve done something astronomical around here.”

Excuses be damned.

Grant Freking is a Fulcher 2 Stay and Cincinnati Magazine contributor, and also writes for Land-Grant Holy Land, Redleg Nation, and The Ohioan. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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