Vontaze Burfict was having the game of his life when he ran into the bowels of Paul Brown Stadium with what appeared to be a clinching interception, trailed by Adam “Pacman” Jones and several teammates eager to celebrate.
Had Burfict and Jones only stayed there, the Cincinnati Bengals might still be playing next week.
That irony will probably not be lost on Bengals fans as they cope with yet another playoff meltdown, this one unlike any other. They’ll spend a miserable offseason wondering what might have been had Burfict and Jones exhibited just a modicum of self-control in the final seconds against a Pittsburgh team with a quarterback who could barely lift his right arm.
It happened at the worst time and on the biggest stage. But no one can say the Bengals didn’t see it coming.
A team that gambled on a pair of players with well-known issues got beat precisely because of those issues. Burfict went head hunting, Jones went after Steelers assistant Joey Porter, and the Bengals went off into the rainy night as losers once again.
Blame owner Mike Brown and team management for taking a chance on volatile players no one else would touch. Blame coach Marvin Lewis for not controlling them at the most critical time in the game.
Do, however, give them credit for this: At a time the NFL says it is trying to cut down on cheap shots and head injuries, they helped showed how little has really changed in the league.
Heads are still being hunted. Defenseless players are still being knocked silly.
And all the fines and suspensions — Burfict will almost surely get one to start next season — are simply accepted as a cost of doing business.
Just last month, Burfict got involved in a pregame alteration with Steelers players and was fined $69,454 by the league for three different plays in the game. Yet the linebacker who is the star of the Bengals defense was still allowed to spiral out of control when the teams met once again.
Ugly isn’t the word for how this one played out in prime time on a Saturday night. From fans throwing garbage at an injured Ben Roethlisberger to the brutal hit by Burfict that spun Antonio Brown’s head around in a frightening moment, the rough edges of the NFL were on display.
“A vicious, violent game,” said CBS announcer Jim Nantz, normally an apologist for any sport he covers.
“What a disgrace an embarrassment,” former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason tweeted.
Indeed, this was much like the NFL of old, where everything goes and only the strongest survive to play again the next week. Two teams that despise each other in a game decided by two personal foul penalties — there were seven total in the game — on the same play.
The Steelers aren’t exactly innocent victims themselves. Ryan Shazier crumpled Giovanni Bernard with a hit that looked to be initiated by Shazier’s helmet. Shazier wasn’t penalized, and the Steelers recovered Bernard’s fumble. That hit seemed to turn up the anger of the Bengals. Jones complained that Porter — known for some big hits of his own as a player — was on the field illegally when Jones was penalized.
There’s not anything wrong with good, hard football. In this case, though, there wasn’t a lot of good on the field.
This could have been remembered as a game where AJ McCarron made his mark by leading the Bengals to the go-ahead touchdown in only his fourth NFL start. It could have been a game made memorable by Roethlisberger heroically coming back from being knocked out of the game by Burfict to rally his team despite hardly being able to throw.
Instead, it will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
That’s on the Bengals, who can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to signing players who come with baggage. That certainly includes Jones, who was suspended for a year by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in a 2007 shooting at a Las Vegas strip club that left a bouncer paralyzed.
And it includes Burfict, an immensely talented middle linebacker who went undrafted out of Arizona State because of emotional control issues. Burfict was flagged 22 times for unsportsmanlike penalties in 37 games at ASU, and was benched in his final bowl game.
The Bengals signed both players not just because they were desperate to win a playoff game — Cincinnati is 0-7 under Lewis in the playoffs — but because they thought their talent was worth the calculated risk. For the last several years, it has worked, as both have been valuable members of a good defense.
All the way up to the final seconds of the playoff game against the Steelers.
And once again, the Bengals are paying the price.