January 9, 2016.
A date that might have gone down as the day the Bengals finally won a playoff game instead was relegated to one that will live in infamy following a frenetic fourth quarter and maybe the worst two minutes of football in team history.
"We destructed on ourselves," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose team suffered a fifth straight first-round playoff exit and a meltdown of monumental proportions.
To that the charmed Pittsburgh Steelers say, "Thank you, Cincinnati. Denver, here we come."
The gifted Steelers made off with an unlikely, a downright ridiculous, absurd and preposterously outrageous 18-16 AFC Wild Card playoff win Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium in wet and wild Cincinnati. They advanced on Chris Boswell's 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds to play in a game that had more rain and more surreal moments than a David Lynch film adaption of a Salvador Dali painting of the Rapture in a storm.
The stunned Bengals didn't go to playoff heaven after a 25-year absence. But their game plan went to hell, undermined by bedeviling behavior by two of their finest and fieriest players -- linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam Jones.
"Their emotions got to them," said Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who clearly got in the Bengals' heads.
Though they did not blow Saturday night to smithereens all by themselves, sharing blame with several Bengals teammates and even their coaches, Burfict and Jones were bad boys during critical junctures late in the game that undid all the good the Bengals accomplished to that point in front of a shocked sell-out crowd.
Back-to-back unsportsmanlike penalties, one each by Burfict and Jones, put Boswell 30 yards closer to his game-winning target. That series of events followed a costly Jeremy Hill fumble caused by Shazier while the Bengals were trying to run out the clock with 1:30 left.
Before that came a Burfict interception of Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones, Burfict's sudden disappearance into the bowels of PBS with a handful of teammates in apparent premature celebration, a failed two-point conversion run by Hill, silly Bengals penalties, loose footballs, loss of focus, a personal foul penalty against Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak for grabbing Reggie Nelson's hair in the aftermath of a sideline play, you name it.
After all that, plus a sustained Steelers running attack behind a pair of whoozits, the difference in the score was two points. The difference between the two teams was the Steelers' ability to rise to the occasion, personified by game-winning driver and Bengals killer Ben Roethlisberger (18-of-31 passing, 229 yards, 1 TD) and Cincinnati's unquestioned inability to win in the postseason.
The Steelers (11-6) beat up Cincinnati (12-5) and took what was given like it was candy taken from a team taking baby steps to greatness. The Bengals succumbed to the mugging, losing a running back and a pair of starting defensive backs to injury in the brutal hard-hitting contest between AFC North rivals. They decided to get revenge instead of getting ahead, playing right into the sneaky Steelers' hands.
Pittsburgh moved into game-winning field goal position with quarterback hero Roethlisberger returning from a knockout blow on a Burfict sack while doing his best Willis Reed impersonation, circa 1970 Game 7 NBA finals for the New York Knicks. Cincinnati was leading 16-15 with a leaping 25-yard touchdown grab by wide receiver A.J. Green (5 catches, 71 yards, 1 TD) on a throw from gutsy but mistake-prone AJ McCarron (23-of-41, 212 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception), who was 9-of-15 for 98 yards and a go-ahead touchdown in the final quarter.
The Bengals scored 16 consecutive points, all in the chaotic fourth, most of it in the rain, after trailing 15-0 on three Boswell field goals and a flipping, somersaulting highlight-reel TD catch in the back of the end zone by receiver Martavis Bryant on a third-quarter throw from Big Ben, who later left with an injured shoulder, only to return.
The Steelers were able to move in for the kill on the game-winning drive in part because Burfict preferred to drop his shoulder and hit defenseless Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown (7 catches, 119 yards) in the helmet as the All-Pro Steeler came across the middle, and Jones chose to lose his cool with Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter instead of both Bengals putting team interests first.
Boswell converted his fourth field goal on the ensuing play, giving the Steelers their first playoff win in five years and the Bengals their eighth straight playoff loss. The last seven playoff losses have come under Lewis, who can expect to come under fire for failing to keep his team composed during one of the most prime opportunities ever presented to this snake-bitten franchise. He will be lucky if he is not fired.
Hill, the slippery-fingered bell-cow after Giovani Bernard got his bell rung and was knocked out of the game by Shazier, finished with 12 carries for 52 yards and the costly mishandle. It was one of four turnovers for the Bengals, who were outgained 369-279.
Undrafted former practice squad back Fitzgerald Toussaint and unheralded journeyman Jordan Todman combined for 123 rushing yards for Pittsburgh as injury replacements for recently departed DeAngelo Williams, who was filling in for long-gone Le'Veon Bell.
Call the late and fateful penalties and all of the Bengals' extraneous and certainly unnecessary behavior selfish. Call it disgraceful. Disrespectful. Say it is just deserts, that karma's a bitch for those that botch their ways. Suggest the moment was too big for Cincinnati. Say the guiltiest were ghastly and out of control. Say the Bengals choked when it counted. They let down their teammates, an entire city. They were unprofessional and utterly lacking in cool. Say that two bad apples spoiled the whole bunch. Say what you will about the Bengals in the heat of big moments.
But, admit this much. Saturday was a heist -- and brilliant theater on the order of a post-modern morality play -- perpetrated on national television by the improbably victorious Steelers and their accomplices, the incredibly unlucky Bengals, who helped them get away with it.
Yep, this was an inside job turned in by a team that's been on the outside of the playoff victory circle and looking for answers going on 26 years. How the Bengals managed to out-do all of their previous playoff meltdowns with one epic fail one rainy night by the river of tears will sit with them and their fans like a tornado of memories.
When people with history on their minds begin composing the true nature of the Bengals' undoing, they may start with a story of disarming lack of composure born out of a me-first mentality on the part of a small few who put throwing an unnecessary shoulder and bumping a referee ahead of winning a playoff game against a hated rival.
With the ageless and versatile Jones, he of the checkered personal past, and the wondrously talented but oft-fined Burfict, the Bengals play with fire, tongues of flame that keep them burning on defense. They represent double-edged swords that cut both ways. Jones and Burfict are two of the enforcers on a team possessing the second-best scoring defense in the NFL, and they play with unrivaled and sometimes blinding passion.
Saturday, they were seemingly sightless under the bright lights during blink-and-you-missed-it moments; blinded by rage while failing to foresee the results of their actions. What got in the way of the Bengals and their first postseason win since Guns N' Roses were relevant was one spectacular foot-shooting party. Not to mention poor play amid starring efforts, bad decision-making alongside uncanny judgment by players and coaches alike amid mounting injuries against an opponent that was all too happy to play opportunist.
For a team that had found every way to lose, the Bengals managed to invent another in one of the craziest playoff games in recent memory, and they have only themselves to blame for coming out on the short end of it.
And now, an uncertain offseason awaits in Cincinnati. A winter of discontent is in the offing. A far-off 2016 beckons a renewal among the heads that won't roll.
Welcome to the jungle.