The value may be too large to measure
At any point in time, mathematically speaking, half the sports fans in the world are miserable. We hedge our bets by rooting for more than one team right now. The Cavaliers’ 12-game winning streak take my mind off the Penguins’ struggles. But in the moment, as the momentum of each game surges in one direction or another with every play, one group of fans feels ecstasy while another feels despair. It makes the entire enterprise hard to justify at times, but so it goes.
There is a special kind of misery, though, that only a few fans get to experience. Even when things are going well, doom lies just around the corner. That means that you can’t even enjoy being a fan in the best of times because that just makes the heartbreak more intense when it comes. And you know that will happen — it always happens. Which brings us to the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I have always assumed that Marvin Lewis was a nice guy. He’s a good coach, too. Lewis was the mastermind behind the Ravens’ epic defense than won a Super Bowl, and he has played a key role in constructing a Bengals roster that made the playoffs six times in a seven-year span. If nothing else, the fact that Lewis is in his fifteenth year in the same job is a notable accomplishment.
But Lewis seems destined to go down as the worst postseason coach in NFL history. He is the victim of more bizarre occurrences than any nice guy should endure. He has a career postseason record of 0–7, with many of the losses so bizarre they can only be explained as the result of a witch doctor somewhere poking needles into a Marvin Lewis doll. In his most recent postseason debacle, the Bengals had a lead and the ball against the Steelers in the final minute, only to fumble the ball away, then gift the Steelers into field goal range with a series of cheap shots that resulted in penalties.
Whatever karma has haunted Lewis in every postseason must have figured it wouldn’t get a shot at him this year, so it came after him early. And so it was last night. Even as Cincinnati built a 17–0 lead in the second quarter behind a stifling defense, efficient Andy Dalton, and a surprisingly vigorous running game, nobody could really enjoy the best half of football the team had played all season because they were all waiting for the Bengals to transform back into the Bungles.
Sure enough, after the Bengals scored with 31 seconds left in the first half, they pinned the Steelers back on their 17 after the succeeding kickoff. This is a situation that normally calls for taking a knee. The odds of anything positive occurring are so bleak given the time remaining and yard line location. The Steelers didn’t take a knee, but they did the next most-conservative thing: a screen pass to Le’Veon Bell. What happened next? Bell caught the pass in the flat and ran for a 33-yard gain that suddenly opened up the possibility of scoring before halftime.
At this point a Bengals fan feels like they are watching the scene at the start of Jaws when the girl decides to go swimming. But that’s more or less a constant if you root for this team. At this point ESPN gave the Bengals an 89.1% chance of winning the game. That is based on outcomes of actual games where a team had a 17-point lead near halftime. If you’ve seen the Bengals before, though, you knew this game was a tossup.
It became worse than a tossup on the next play when the Bengals were called for pass interference on a deep pass to Antonio Brown. That gave the Steelers a field goal, making it a two-score margin and suddenly manageable from the Steelers’ point of view. More specifically, it gave the Bengals a chance to do what they do, figure out a way, with their playoff odds hanging in the balance, to give away the game.
On the Steelers’ first drive of the second half, Bell caught another pass in the flat and ran for about 10 yards before he was surrounded by two Bengal defenders and the sideline. Everyone, including Bell, relaxed for a moment, assuming the play was over, but neither Bengal player made sure it was over by pushing Bell out of bounds. You could argue here that the Bengals were showing good sportsmanship by not taking the opportunity to inflict punishment, and that Bell was taking advantage by seeming to relax only to accelerate as soon as his opponents eased up. But this is the NFL. You finish the play. The Bengals didn’t, and Bell made them pay by regaining his balance and tiptoeing down the sideline for a touchdown that cut the lead to seven.
The Bengals came right back with a long touchdown from Dalton to AJ Green, but it was called back by a hold. They settled for a field goal. The teams exchanged punts, then Pittsburgh drove 74 yards to a field goal, highlighted by a 4th and 1 conversion on their own 36 and another pass interference penalty that gave the Steelers 30 free yards.
Now the Bengals offense, so effective thus far, more or less shut down. Green dropped two passes in the second half, and Brandon LaFell, who was lauded earlier in the game as the most sure-handed received in the league, dropped a wide-open catch on 2nd and 23 on the next drive that might have given the Bengals a first down. The Steelers got the ball back on their own 20, and on second down Geno Atkins was called for roughing the passer. From there it only took eight plays to tie the game with 3:51 to go. On the touchdown, the Bengals were called for another late hit, which enabled Pittsburgh to kick off from the fifty. That pinned Cincinnati back on its next drive, but they still had a chance until Green’s second drop of the game, on a deep pass over the middle on first down.
Maybe the Steelers would have found a way to win this game no matter what the Bengals did. You don’t get to 10–2 without being resourceful, and the Steelers simply have more guys capable of making plays than just about anyone else, including the Bengals. But if the Bengals had been able to avoid even one of the missed tackles, dropped passes, or stupid penalties that thwarted them from the time they took a 17–0 lead, they probably would not have been tied when they gave the ball back to Pittsburgh in great field position with 2:42 to go. From that point, the outcome was as inevitable as a happy ending in a Sandra Bullock movie. Maybe the Bengals should hire Sandra Bullock.
It would be wrong to conclude any analysis of this game without mentioning the violence, which seems to be a recurring feature of this rivalry. The league has stepped in with one-game suspensions for JuJu Smith-Shuster and George Iloka, which sends a message of sorts, but not nearly enough to dissuade anyone from getting payback the next time these teams play. There’s no easy answer for this. These teams simply don’t like or respect each other, and when you add that to an inherently violent game and a schedule that includes two meetings a year, this will only play itself out when the personnel turns over enough to eliminate the animosity. That’s a lousy answer when guys are getting carried off on stretchers, but in the current state of the NFL, there isn’t a better one.