Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 10, 2016

Disappointment And Worse For Wild Card Losers

With the single-elimination format of the NFL playoffs, fans of every team in the postseason watch each game on an emotional knife-edge. All the work that has gone into winning a division title or capturing one of each conference’s two Wild Card spots can be undone by a team’s untimely poor performance, or even by the faltering of a single player.

After this weekend supporters of the Houston Texans are acutely aware of that fact. They watched Kansas City’s Knile Davis return the opening kickoff of the first NFL Wild Card contest 106 yards for a touchdown, and things only got worse from there. Houston’s seven possessions in the first half ended punt, interception, fumble, punt, interception, interception, knee. While the Texans improved in the second half, turning the ball over only once, it mattered little as Kansas City rolled to a 30-0 victory.

More than a thousand miles north of Houston, Minnesota Vikings fans shared the sense of disappointment; though the source of theirs was more singular. Underdogs against visiting Seattle in a game that was played in sub-zero temperatures, the Vikings kept the explosive Seahawks offense at bay for much of the game while placekicker Blair Walsh connected on field goals of 22, 43 and 47 yards to give the home team a 9-0 lead entering the 4th quarter.

After Seattle finally broke through for ten points in the final period, Minnesota started one final drive from their own 39-yard line with less than two minutes to play. A pass interference penalty against Seattle and then a fine catch and run by Kyle Rudolph quickly moved the ball down inside the Seattle twenty. Three runs by Adrian Peterson moved it to the 9-yard line with twenty-six seconds remaining, setting up a chip shot field goal for Walsh to send the Vikings on to the divisional round. As perfect as he had been all afternoon, Walsh was anything but with the game on the line. His kick started left and stayed there, never threatening the space between the goal posts.

But the pain in Houston and Minneapolis is modest compared to the agony in Cincinnati. The Bengals have not won a postseason contest in a quarter century, the longest playoff victory drought in the NFL. After trailing for most of the game the Bengals rallied behind backup quarterback A. J. McCarron to tally sixteen fourth quarter points, good for a one-point advantage over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. Cincinnati had also driven Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from the game with a sack at the end of the 3rd quarter which injured the right shoulder of the Steelers’ signal caller. Then on Pittsburgh’s first play from scrimmage after the Bengals took the lead Vontaze Burfict picked off an errant throw from backup quarterback Landry Jones. The pick gave Cincinnati the ball on the Pittsburgh 26-yard line with just 96 seconds remaining.

At that moment surely many among the 65,000-plus packed into Paul Brown Stadium must have dared to exhale, believing that their team’s long years in the wilderness were finally coming to an end. Instead in that final minute and a half the Bengals imploded in historic fashion, giving away first the ball and then the game. Their fans could only watch in shocked disbelief as their heroes came apart, gifting a victory to their franchise’s most bitter rival.

On first down McCarron handed the ball to Jeremy Hill, who ran to his right for six yards before starting to go down in a pack of players. As he did so linebacker Ryan Shazier stripped the football from Hill’s grasp. It bounded down the field before being covered by the Steelers’ Ross Cockrell at the 9-yard line. The turnover gave the Steelers new life, and for their final drive they also had a new quarterback as Roethlisberger returned to the huddle.

Still Pittsburgh had just eighty-three seconds to move the ball fifty-five or sixty yards to get into field goal range, and with a bad shoulder the Cincinnati defenders knew it was unlikely that Roethlisberger could attempt any deep throws. Yet even with that knowledge the Bengals defense was unable to stop the Steelers. Over the next minute the Steelers used all three of their timeouts while running eight plays, seven of which were short passes toward the sidelines. Roethlisberger connected on five of the seven, only one of which went for more than ten yards. Along with a four yard run by Fitzgerald Toussaint the series moved the ball to the Cincinnati 47-yard line, still outside field goal range.

Bengals fans who had dared to breathe were no doubt cursing themselves for having done so, but victory could still be preserved with one key stop. Instead what happened next will forever be one of the lowest points in Bengals history. Roethlisberger threw over the head of Antonio Brown, but Burfict, who had appeared to be the hero little more than a minute of game time earlier, came flying in with a late helmet-to-helmet hit on Brown. Then before the officials could count off the fifteen yards for the penalty on Burfict, “Pacman” Jones started shoving a Pittsburgh coach who had come on the field to check on Brown, resulting in a second fifteen yard penalty against the Bengals.

The thirty free yards gave the Steelers a first down on the Bengals 17-yard line, and Pittsburgh wasted no time from there. The field goal unit came on and Chris Boswell’s 35-yard attempt split the uprights, giving the visitors an improbable 18-16 lead, thanks to the utter lack of self-control by the Bengals.

Former Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason, who was doing commentary for CBS, pronounced himself “embarrassed.” It’s possible that Burfict, who was fined $69,000 for illegal hits the last time Cincinnati played Pittsburgh, will start next season serving a suspension for the concussion-causing hit on Brown; and the wallet of “Pacman” Jones will almost certainly be lighter once the NFL is done reviewing the debacle at the end of the game. But none of that will change the fact that in Cincinnati the playoff victory drought goes on. “We destructed on ourselves,” head coach Marvin Lewis said after the game. The words are true enough, but it will be many months before long-suffering Bengals fans will know if their team learned anything from the ugly experience.

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