In the latest installment that is the tragic marriage between Cincinnati professional sports and the postseason, the slow knife was the culprit this time around. Yet again, a city’s heartbroken, with a capacity crowd at Paul Brown Stadium performing admirably (minus some garbage tossing) through a start-to-finish rainstorm, only to ultimately witness the reviled Steelers prevail 18-16 under the lights of the Queen City’s Concrete Jungle.
Not long after the the clock struck zero, Bengals owner Mike Brown sauntered down a PBS tunnel, a box of tissues in hand as he entered his team’s locker room. Minutes later, Marvin Lewis plopped down in a chair in the Bengals interview room, and before he addressed the assembled media, the longtime Bengals coach allowed himself nearly 10 seconds to process the night’s events. Shortly thereafter, media entered the Bengals locker room. At one end of the room, defensive lineman Margus Hunt sat on a stool in front of his locker, staring blankly ahead at nothing in particular. At the opposite end of room, linebacker P.J. Dawson mimicked Hunt’s empty expression.
What’s to be said after an impossibly insane game? Members of the Bengals coped in wildly divergent manners. Lewis offered his typical forced platitudes and covered for the reckless, damaging behavior exhibited by a few of his players. (In fairness to Lewis, his tone took a more admonishing and reasoned turn during his press conference Monday afternoon.) Hunt and Dawson gazed into oblivion. Adam Jones submitted a profane Instagram rant. Vontaze Burfict engaged in a somewhat hostile encounter with reporters. Jeremy Hill owned up to his costly fumble. A.J. Green, Andrew Whitworth, and others partially succeeded in shrouding their disappointment with diplomacy.
I walked up to kicker Mike Nugent and confessed that the only entry I could muster on my notepad to describe the game was ‘Holy Shit.’
“That’s how this league is, you can never be comfortable,” Nugent said, preferring a glass half-full perspective when recounting the night’s events. “We set it up to a put smile on the fans’ faces for awhile.”
Indeed they did. Past performance indicated that the Bengals, outscored 57-6 in the second halves of four successive postseason setbacks, were doomed to be washed away by the rain trailing 15-0 entering the fourth quarter. But then AJ McCarron suddenly morphed from inept to incredible, directing three straight scoring drives, the last of which culminated in a moment that unlocked a groundswell of glee among the orange-and-black clad paid customers: a touchdown pass to A.J. Green that provided the hosts with a 16-15 advantage with one minute and 50 seconds on the clock. And when Burfict submitted a diving interception to seemingly seal the game on the Steelers’ next drive, the resulting ebullience from the crowd was striking: it felt as if I saw 60,000 people break into one wide smile together.
But, since this city seems to only dabble in despair during these instances, agony replaced glee in a moment’s notice. Hill fumbled. Jones and Burfict melted down in front of a national audience. And Ben Roethlisberger, seemingly put on this planet to torture the Bengals, directed the game-winning drive with a bum throwing shoulder.
The game began to take on a stadium-wide out-of-body experience after a Steelers position coach earned a penalty for swinging Reggie Nelson by his hair. That was before Martavis Bryant caught a touchdown pass with his derriere, beers flew from the stands, and the teams combined for 221 penalty yards. (Again, spot-on job by the NFL for trotting out the same head official from the Bengals-Steelers Week 14 tilt that resulted in nearly $140,000 in fines. Keep gettin’ dem checks, Roger Goodell.)
At some point, the Playoff Drought—slated to reach its 26th year next January—will find its denouement. (With their 30-0 dismantling of the Texans Saturday afternoon, the Chiefs ended the NFL’s third-longest playoff winless streak, netting their first postseason victory since Jan. 16, 1994. It could happen.) How many more attempts Lewis will receive to terminate the Drought (as well his own ignominious mark, an NFL-record seven losses in seven postseason tries) is certainly up for debate, though it appears Lewis’ job is safe at least for another season. Lewis’ prominent role in the franchise’s evolution from laughingstock to a self-replenishing and winning organization is certainly worthy of commendation, but after a self-destruction Saturday night that was made so much worse by its humiliating nature, one would think Brown and Lewis at the very least engaged in a heart-to-heart conversation sometime over the weekend.
So, the pain will persist for a bit longer this time around—on Monday, Lewis admitted that Saturday night “won’t get behind me for a long time”—but eventually, the page will turn. And before Bengals fans reach for cynicism, they should remember that this team will be good again next season, even without offensive coordinator Hue Jackson (a lock to become a head coach again very soon) and even if the front office can only retain a handful of its many free agents. (Lewis was strangely confident about the Bengals’ ability bring back most of their key free agents, a group that includes Adam Jones, Marvin Jones, and George Iloka. We’ll see.)
Maybe the Bengals won’t be 12-4 good, but so long as Andy Dalton and Geno Atkins (who spoke to the media for the first time all season Saturday night) remain healthy, Cincinnati is certainly talented and experienced enough for yet another playoff run.
So, don’t lose that faith, Cincinnati. Your time as the Heartbreaker is coming.