Last Saturday’s AFC Wildcard matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers was expected to be chippy, but I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the bizarre set of events that occurred in the final minute.
Down one point with 22 seconds left on the clock, an injured Ben Roethlisberger had driven the Steelers to 15 yards or so from field goal range. Seemingly on cue, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict drew a costly unnecessary roughness penalty with a seemingly intentional blow to the head of a defenseless Antonio Brown. As Brown was being helped off the field–as if the game wasn’t already on the brink of mayhem–Steelers linebacker coach Joey Porter (who had no reason to be on the field at the time) exchanged some words with Cincy’s defense; Adam “Pac Man” Jones wasn’t having it, and wound up drawing a second 15-yard penalty. All of a sudden, Chris Boswell was set up for a 35-yard field goal 18 seconds left, which he made. The Bengals had done the unimaginable, yet somehow foreseeable: they lost with victory in sight, yet again. At this point, the Bengals’ luck in the postseason is almost comical. But is coach Marvin Lewis to blame?
This season was arguably the best in franchise history for the Bengals; it was also a career season for quarterback Andy Dalton. Unfortunately, Dalton suffered a season-ending injury in Week 14 against the Steelers. If healthy, Dalton would have impacted Saturday’s Wild Card game significantly–but credit 2-time National Championship winner A.J. McCarron, who played decently and managed to snag a lead late in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati was banking on a sophomore backup quarterback, making only his fourth career start, to win his first playoff game–and he almost did.
Jones and Burfict should be held responsible for their behavior on the field, which ultimately cost Cincinnati the game. Some would say it’s the head coach’s job to control his team, but how many coaches can really control two such emotionally unpredictable players? Yes, Lewis could have warned his team about controlling their behavior; yes, he could have taken Jones or Burfict off of the field when their emotions were flaring. But Jones and Burfict are two of the Bengals’ best players on defense, and removing them late in the game must not have seemed like much of an option.
Dalton’s injury and Porter antagonizing Bengals players are circumstances beyond Lewis’ control, as was Jeremy Hill‘s fumble with a chance to put the game away.
Regardless of this year’s outcome and their 0-7 playoff record under Lewis, Cincy has been steadily improving from year to year. They have weapons on both offense and defense, and now they have an even bigger chip on their shoulders. As cliché as it sounds, next year may finally be their year.
Marvin Lewis shouldn’t lose his job because of his starting quarterback’s injury and the behavior of two well known lose cannons. He should be granted another opportunity to coach the franchise he helped make relevant again. The Bengals hope to start next year healthy and answer their critics–but what everyone will be watching for is how they’ll perform when the postseason rolls back around.