NFL AM AFC Wildcard Observations: Bengals Find Way To Lose


Steelers 18, Bengals 16

If you brought a script of Saturday evening’s Steelers-Bengals game to a Hollywood producer, they would have thrown it out for being too unrealistic.

In what amounted to be one of the most unbelievable football games that anyone will ever see, the Pittsburgh Steelers advanced to the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs due to the egregious mistakes by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Like any good movie, there was a main character and that was played by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.  Through most of the night, we didn’t know whether the former Arizona State standout would be a hero or a villain.

Burfict was both.

The former Pro Bowl linebacker made the play of the game that gave a struggling Bengals team life when they were down 15-0, as he sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and landed on his shoulder.

It was a completely clean hit.

That hit took Roethlisberger out of the game with a shoulder injury and he only returned at the end of the game and he was unable to throw the ball more than 10 yards down the field.

After 16 unanswered points by the Bengals to take the lead, Burfict made what should have been the play he’d be remembered for when he intercepted Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones with under two minutes left in the game.

For those who are into win probability, the Bengals had to be pretty high considering they had the ball at the Pittsburgh 26-yard line, up one point, with less than two minutes left on the clock, and with Ben Roethlisberger unable to throw down the field.

Only a professional football team from Ohio could possibly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in this situation.

Running back Jeremy Hill broke through the Steelers defensive line and then was stripped when he got into the secondary, a fumble that was of course recovered by Pittsburgh.

As horrific of a play as that was, the course of events that would transpire almost make Hill’s gaff an afterthought.

Roethlisberger was checking down (because it was all he was capable of doing) and were near midfield.  With 22 seconds remaining, Roethlisberger threw incomplete to Antonio Brown who was viciously hit in the head by Burfict, resulting in a 15-yard penalty which moved the Steelers on the edge of field goal range.

As officials were sorting out the penalty and trainers came to Brown’s aid, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he got in a verbal altercation with Steelers assistant Joey Porter during an on-field scrum.

That moved the Steelers into chip-shot field goal range, and kicker Chris Boswell connected from 35 yards to give Pittsburgh the improbable victory.

This was Burfict’s explanation.

“I was just telling the coaches out there they [Steelers players] were cussing out Adam,” he explained. “That’s why Adam pushed him [Porter].  He shouldn’t be on the field cussing us out.

“The ref heard it all, but the ref threw the flag on Adam.”

Yes Bengals, blame it on the officials.  Will that help you sleep better tonight an throughout the rest of the offseason knowing that you lost your fifth-straight playoff game in the last five years (eighth straight overall)?

As good as the Bengals have been in the regular season over the last five years, they simply have loser intangibles when it comes to postseason play.

There was no Andy Dalton meltdown this time around.  The team wasn’t egregiously out-coached for once in January.  Instead, the front office (including head coach Marvin Lewis) that clearly doesn’t value character with guys like Burfict and Jones, gave away a game on their own stupidity from a complete loss of discipline.

Where do they go from here?

The Steelers go to Denver where they will take on a well rested Broncos team.  Pittsburgh will have a damaged Roethlisberger at quarterback, Antonio Brown is in the league’s concussion protocol and DeAngelo Williams might or might not play.

The Bengals will need to do some soul searching in the offseason.  They don’t know whether Andy Dalton has outgrown his playoff implosions (because he was injured) and if they make the postseason again next year everyone in Cincy will hold their breath.

Will they move on from the characters without character, Burfict and Jones?  Knowing the way the Bengals do business, probably not.

Marvin Lewis has now finished 12 seasons as Bengals head coach and has as many playoff wins as this writer.

What’s the definition of insanity?

The Denver Broncos seem to be the biggest winners of the day.  With the Bengals implosion, Denver avoids having to play the red hot Kansas City Chiefs, who pounded them two months ago and they get the Steelers with all of their injuries.  It will likely take an implosion of epic (Manning) proportion to not see the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.

Speaking of Kansas City, the Chiefs pounded the Houston Texans, 30-0, in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.

Here are some observations:


  • Alex Smith’s legs make him very dangerous, and he’s playing at a reasonably high level right now.
  • The Kansas City secondary is very good, and they pitched a shutout without Justin Houston being all the way healthy.
  • It’s likely that Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL again, and that is an absolute killer for this offense.  They don’t have another player like him and Chris Conley needs to step up in a big way.
  • The Chiefs must tackle better next week in New England.
  • Andy Reid is so unappreciated.  He’s one of the elite head coaches in the NFL and Kansas City is very lucky to have him.


  • The Texans made a huge mistake in the 2014 NFL Draft by not taking Blake Bortles, Derek Carr or Teddy Bridgewater.  They are not a real contender without a quarterback and they are winning too many games to get a franchise quarterback.  That folks, is what we call quarterback purgatory.
  • The game was far too big for Brian Hoyer.  It’s not his fault, if you’re depending on Hoyer to win you a playoff game, everything else has to be completely perfect.
  • As great as J.J. Watt is, he can be neutralized by angled blocking and the quick passing game. This was a terrible matchup for the Texans.
  • Houston needs more playmakers on offense.  DeAndre Hopkins is fantastic, but there is nobody else on that team that can win against man coverage.  Take Hopkins away and it’s the worst set of skill position players in the NFL.
  • Bill O’Brien’s arrogance, thinking he can make chicken salad out of…well, you know at quarterback is why they are in this position.  There’s no easy way out, unless the Saints will trade Drew Brees, which they likely won’t.


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.