It has now been close to a week since the conclusion of Saturday’s Bengal-Steeler playoff game (working title, “The Bungle in the Jungle,” patent pending, all rights reserved), and I am just now getting a chance to collect some thoughts in an attempt to describe the indescribable—to explain the inexplicable.
To put it mildly, the game was brutal. The conditions were brutal. The play on the field (and on occasion, off of it—I’m looking at you, Mike Munchak) was brutal. Most of all, the conclusion of the game was brutal—the cruelest twist of fate dealt to a team who has had more than their share of bad luck and self-inflicted agony.
The Bengals lose. It’s what they do. Sometimes early, sometimes late, but for 47 years, the Cincinnati football team has specialized in finding new, creative, more painful ways to not win.
But on January 9, 2016, the Bengals delivered their masterpiece—a magnum opus of defeat that may never be matched. It was King Lear, full of plots and subplots, tragic heroes and anti-heroes. It was Guernica—a chaotic, dark work of art painted on the soggy canvas of Field Turf at Paul Brown Stadium.
To be sure, there have been more dramatic, last-second conclusions to football games than the game at issue. One only need look back a few months to the ridiculous conclusion of the Michigan-Michigan State game to see that. But perhaps no loss in history has ever been so densely layered in narrative upon narrative, tied together by strong personalities with personal vendettas.
The foundation upon which the defeat was constructed is impressive. First, you have a team with the longest stretch of playoff futility in the league. Add to this recent years of relative success, all ending with epic playoff failures, serving only to ratchet up the anxiety of the fan base.
Next, add the Pittsburgh Steelers, long the Bengals’ most hated foe and persistent thorn in the side. The two regular season meetings of the season resulted in the loss of the Steelers’ all-pro tailback (in a Bengal victory) and the injury of Cincinnati’s MVP-candidate quarterback (a Steeler win). The first game resulted in death threats between players on social media, while the second ended with $145,000 in fines levied on players on both teams for general thuggery. When Pittsburgh crept into the final playoff spot on the final day of the season, a foreboding sense of doom seemed to roll down the river into southwest Ohio.
Finally, there are the parallels with the 2005 season. A prolific, record-setting Bengal team enters the playoffs as a number three seed, only to have to play host to a sixth-seeded Steeler team without their starting quarterback. The eventual loss to the Steelers in 2005 was the first of what would be six Bengal playoff losses in 10 years, while the resurgent Steelers would take the momentum of that game all the way to a Super Bowl victory. The more optimistic of Bengal fans saw this as an opportunity for closure—a chance to create nice symmetry for the lost title shot a decade earlier. Most, however, saw it as history repeating itself once again. (Bengal fans are, understandably, pessimistic by nature.)
Of course, a story is only as good as its characters, and this one has them in spades. On the Bengal side, there is Adam “Pacman” Jones, a (somewhat) reformed bad boy experiencing a renaissance in Cincinnati, but with a darkness lurking just below the surface; there is Vontaze Burfict, the volatile, hard-hitting linebacker with psychotic tendencies; and there is A. J. McCarron, the inexperienced yet confident young backup quarterback, filling in for the fallen star quarterback. For the Steelers, there is Ben Roethlisberger, the Ohio-raised field general who has broken Bengal hearts many times before; and Joey Porter, the contentious former linebacker turned contentious coach. All these individuals, and more, would play a role in the tragic drama to unfurl.
It is unnecessary (and frankly, too painful) to go through all the details of what transpired on that dark and stormy night on the Ohio River. What is worth noting is that all the key elements for Greek tragedy are clearly evident in the way the game lurched to its inevitable conclusion:
- Peripeteia (Plot Reversal). For much of the evening, it looked like the Bengals would exit the playoffs the same way they had in each of the four previous seasons—with a whimper. Down 15 points late in the third period, the Bengals were driving toward a score, only to see hope dim as running back Giovanni Bernard was knocked unconscious on a ferocious (illegal?) hit, fumbling away an opportunity to make their way back into the competition. Steeler players celebrated even while medical staff tended to the fallen player.But the on-field Steeler celebration only served to galvanize Bengal resolve. Fueled by the memory of their fallen comrade, the home team mounted a spirited response, which seemingly reached its conclusion when wide receiver A. J. Green walked into the end zone with the go-ahead score in the closing minutes. And when Burfict intercepted a subsequent Pittsburgh pass, denouement seemed complete.
- Hubris (Exaggerated Self Confidence). Following the interception, celebrations broke out in the stands and on the field. Burfict excitedly took the ball and ran the length of the the field with rapturous enthusiasm. The curse was over! All that was needed was to kill a minute-and-a-half, and the Bengals would finally—finally—be past the first round of the playoffs. All they had to do was avoid turning the ball over, and the exorcism would be complete …
- Hamartia (Tragic Error). Well, you probably know by now that I wouldn’t still be writing if that one thing that couldn’t happen didn’t, in fact, happen. Jeremy Hill, who had been running possessed following the loss of his backfield partner, tried to get one yard too many, and suddenly, with a little more than a minute to go, Pittsburgh had the ball. The old demons live.
- Nemesis (Retribution for Hubris). Of course, Pittsburgh still needed to drive the length of the field to get the winning field goal, and chose to do so with a quarterback with a separated shoulder. With about 20 seconds remaining, the Steelers were still on their own side of the field, with no timeouts, and unable to throw the ball deep.Cue the Bengals’ old self-destructive tendencies.A personal foul on Burfict (the guy set to be a hero following his interception moments earlier) moved the ball to the outskirts of field goal range. And when Adam Jones added a second personal foul, the Steelers had gained 30 yards without a second running off the clock, and what had seemed impossible was now suddenly inevitable. The actual kicking of the winning field goal felt like more of a formality than anything.That Pittsburgh, the oldest Bengal nemesis (in the modern sense of the word) was the recipient of such largesse seemed poetic, Dark, brutal, and painful, but also poetic.
- Pathos (Suffering of a Destructive or Painful Act). Yes. Oh my gosh, yes.
The image of Jeremy Hill running up and down the sidelines in a futile attempt to wish the previous ten minutes out of existence is the perfect summation of not only the most recent game, but of the franchise itself, as well as any fans who have been unfortunate enough to have fallen in love with it.
So once again, the Bengals prematurely enter the off-season. Sure, there will be vows that next year, the team will once-and-for all excise the demons, and by August, much of the current anguish will be replaced by renewed hope and optimism.
But it is hard to shake the feeling that 2015 was the year where the fates had finally aligned for this team to extend the season past the 17th game. It was soooo close—in hand, even—only to slip away once again in the most anguishing fashion imaginable. Opportunities such as the one the Bengals had on Saturday night are valuable commodities, and to literally fumble them away is not likely to endear the team to the football gods in the future.
It makes it incredibly hard to be a Bengal fan, but it does make for fantastic theater.