Even before yesterday, the Cincinnati Bengals’ season was over. Mathematically, the faintest of hopes, sure, but it was done. A failed season. Their only hope was to play spoiler against the Pittsburgh Steelers and rattle their playoff hopes.
For a half, they did just that. And in typical Bengals’ fashion, they couldn’t close things out. It was reminiscent to what happened in last year’s Wild Card game even with significantly lower stakes.
To be upfront about it, the Steelers aren’t a perfect franchise. They have their own warts and I won’t stoop to cliches like “The Steelers’ Way,” a concept that doesn’t really exist. Yesterday was a perfect example of those struggles. A rough first half, marred by their own self-inflicted wounds to give the Bengals a healthy 20-9 lead.
But in the second half, the Bengals fell apart. Again. The offense stalled out and the defense selfishly hurt themselves. Nothing more appropriate than the four penalties they racked up in four straight plays on the Steelers’ game-winning drive.
1. Defensive Offsides (on 3rd and 1)
2. Defensive Holding
3. Defensive Holding
4. Unnecessary Roughness
Two plays later, the Steelers found the end zone, found the win, and officially put the Bengals’ season out to pasture.
It’s not just the loss that shows the Bengals’ true colors. All teams lose. The Steelers were in a funk earlier this season, nearly ending their season well before this game. Truth be told, even in a sub-.500 campaign, the Bengals are still a good team. Some work needed in a couple areas, some bad luck. They’re tough to play and Sunday served as a reminder.
But after the game, their players, the actions of their supposed leaders spoke volumes. Fair warning, there’s some salty language tweets below. So cover your kid’s eyes.
Vontaze Burfict wouldn’t speak to the media.
Burfict’s “clean” streak of two months without post-whistle antics, something an NFL player was actually getting praised for, ended Sunday. More on that in a second.
Elsewhere, Dre Kirkpatrick laughably blamed the loss on the officials.
Their starting running back spiked a Terrible Towel and then got into a Twitter beef before claiming he was “hacked.” Their best cornerback and captain Adam Jones was nailed for a taunting penalty.
Again, Steelers aren’t without their warts and skeletons in the closet. There’s no denying that. They’ve been too penalized, had dumb-guy moments, lost games they should’ve won. But no team loses handling as poorly as the Bengals.
The Steelers know who their leaders are and act accordingly. Cam Heyward. William Gay. Ramon Foster. Ben Roethlisberger. And it was Big Ben who kept the Steelers’ eyes on the prize during the, let’s say testy, moments of the game.
“That’s what a leader is supposed to do,” Roethlisberger said when asked how he kept the team’s emotions in check. “I’ve been playing this game a long time, playing these guys for a long time. Told them that before the game. Well over 25 times I’ve played this team. I told them there would be a lot of emotion. Highs, lows, and kinda a roller coaster and just to play it. And then out there, you know there’s going to be some chippiness. It’s AFC North football. Just wanted to keep everyone calm, under control, and I thought we as a team did a very good job of that today.”
Roethilsberger showed restrain after a Burfict head butt, the same play in which the linebacker was called for a personal foul, tossing Roethlisberger to the ground when he clearly didn’t have the football. Ben didn’t retaliate, laughed it off, and moved on.
In that moment, the comeback was complete. And summed up where both franchises are at.
The Bengals have the potential to be a good team. Heck, they have been a good team. Making the playoffs for five years in a row, that streak obviously broken in 2016, is no small feat. But they’ve yet to figure out how to close out a game, a win, a season. There’s a disconnect between what they want and how to get there.
The Steelers have it figured out. That’s why they’re moving on. When adversity approaches, they rise above. The Bengals wilt. And so for the, yet again, Cincinnati’s season ends in bitter disappointment.