Just once… Can’t we figure out what we keep doin’ wrong. Why the good times never last for long. Where are we goin’ wrong? – From the 1981 song “Just Once” by Quincy Jones and James Ingram.
One minute and 36 seconds left.
The Bengals had the lead and the ball.
The most dramatic playoff win in team history was theirs.
After seven straight postseason losses over the course of 25 years, it was total catharsis for the franchise and the city.
“For the 20 seconds after Burfict’s INT, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Bengals fan Ethan Fields in an e-mail. “My heart was fluttering like it was my wedding night and I was on cloud nine.”
The elation actually lasted a little longer than that. From Burfict’s interception to the start of the next play, roughly 90 seconds of real time elapsed.
The agony that followed is going to be remembered for ages.
“Talk about a roller coaster of emotions,” said George Iloka.
In an attempt to run off as much of the clock as possible and force the Steelers to use their three timeouts, the Bengals handed the ball to Jeremy Hill. I honestly believe that every team in the NFL would have done something similar.
But Hill added his name to a list that includes Earnest Byner and Tony Romo for “most costly fumbles in NFL postseason history”.
“I thought I had the ball tucked in there pretty tight, but it came out,” said Hill. “It’s inexcusable.
“I let the fans down, I let the coaches down, and I let my teammates down. It’s on me.”
But not entirely. The Steelers started at their own nine yard line needing to drive roughly 60 yards in 1:23 to give Chris Boswell a shot at a game-winning field goal. Due to his injured shoulder, Ben Roethslisberger was not able to throw the ball deep.
But Big Ben managed to complete five short throws and Pittsburgh drove to the Cincinnati 47-yard line with 22 seconds to go. The Steelers were out of time outs and the Bengals were still in position to win the game.
Cincinnati basically waived a white flag by drawing two yellow ones.
A high pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown sailed incomplete, but Vontaze Burfict was penalized for unnecessary roughness for hitting Brown in the head. Then Adam Jones was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for his heated reaction to trash-talking Steelers coach Joey Porter. Thirty yards in penalties moved the ball to the 17-yard line and Boswell’s 35-yard field goal ended the Bengals season.
“You can’t have stupid penalties at times like that,” said Andy Dalton.
“You’ve got to be poised and you’ve got to keep playing,” said Marvin Lewis. “There are just things that you’ve got to pull away from.”
“That’s what coach has been saying to us all year,” said AJ McCarron. “It’s going to be hard to win games when we can’t control that.”
The NFL Network’s Michael Silver has dubbed it, “The Meltdown at Paul Brown.”
As he faced the media firing squad after the game, Andrew Whitworth was grilled on the Bengals lack of discipline in the final 30 seconds.
“How hard is it to maintain composure in an atmosphere and a game like this?” asked The Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty.
“I think if you have discipline it’s not that hard,” said Whitworth. “You’ve got to be disciplined and understand the ultimate goal.”
“Who does the lack of discipline fall on?” asked CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco.
“I’m a leader so it falls on all of us,” replied Whitworth. “If any of us have let it slip, or if any of us have not let it be important, then it’s all of our mistake. Discipline is something to me that’s taught throughout the year. It’s not a one-time moment thing. It’s an every-day thing. It’s just like raising my kids. Discipline is something that I have to be consistent every single day with. I have to be consistent on things that are important, and as a leader of the football team it’s the same thing.”
“At the end of the day you’ve got to keep your cool,” said Dalton.
The late collapse negated an incredible comeback. Down by 15 points to begin the fourth quarter, the Bengals scored on three straight possessions and took the lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to A.J. Green with 1:56 remaining.
“Everybody was so calm on that last possession,” said McCarron. “It was kind of creepy. It was like everybody has ice water in their veins. Everybody was calm and thinking that we were going to go and make a freaking play.”
“I’m just proud of AJ man,” said Whitworth. “AJ McCarron came in in a tough role – to take on a team that is a contender and have to stand in there and figure everything out in the manner that he had to do it. It wasn’t going to be clean, it wasn’t going to be pretty, we knew things were going to be ugly at times, but the kid just went about it with every bit of effort that he had. I couldn’t be more proud of him for that.”
Instead of getting credit for his first 4th quarter comeback as an NFL quarterback, McCarron watched helplessly as Roethlisberger recorded his 38th.
“This one just really sucks,” said McCarron. “We were so close to bringing this city what it deserves – especially against Pittsburgh. I’m at a loss for words.”
“I can’t fathom it right now,” said Iloka. “It’s déjà vu. It literally feels like yesterday we were having the same talk about losing in the playoffs. Maybe it feels like yesterday because we’ve had this conversation four times. It’s frustrating.”
The Bengals started the season 8-0 for the first time in team history. They finished the regular season 12-4 to tie the franchise’s best record in a 16-game season. Instead of celebrating an AFC North title and what should have been Cincinnati’s first postseason win in 9,135 days, they will face the same old question for at least another year: Why can’t you win a first round playoff game?
“Guys work hard man,” said Iloka. “From top to bottom, everybody in this organization works hard and I don’t know how we keep losing every year to teams that quite frankly don’t have more talent than us. This is a really talented team in terms of athletes and weapons. We’re stacked and the fact that we keep losing in the first round – I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t have the answers. I really don’t.”
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