In year's past, I watch that brawl and see a criminal culture and a lack of discipline. On Sunday, I watch that brawl and feel pride.
Life is pretty easy when the day moves along without a hitch.
We're all smiles when the coffee is hot, the breakfast is good and the traffic has a steady flow. But what can you tell about a person who doesn't face conflict? Does the same person express similar character when greeted at work by a screaming madman you call the boss? Look past the good times. Define the man by his reaction to adversity. If he cries under his desk in the fetal position until lunch, he's weak (or Private Ryan towards the end of the climatic battle). If he takes the abuse and goes about with the rest of his day, or better yet, uses the altercation as motivation, he is strong.
Had I been in the office that morning to see my coworker's defining moment, I would have watched with the same anticipatory uncertainty that I had watching the 7:16 mark of the fourth quarter on Sunday.
The flow of Sunday's game was already broken with the inadvertent whistle fiasco; so no one was mindlessly staring at a TV (especially in Cincinnati), as usually is the case during a loaded day of NFL games. The apparent Oakland touchdown brought the game within two scores, so the easy coast to victory was abruptly stopped. We were watching. And we raised an eyebrow when the Raiders showed a childish tantrum, forcefully whipping Andy Dalton to the ground well after the play was blown dead.
Andrew Whitworth reacted much the same way as the rest of us with a "what the f..." moment. Only he did something about it. Whitworth pushed. The Raiders pushed back. Shoving, punching and gouging, eventually the pile ate dirt and when the scrum ended, three players were ejected.
I watched with pride - a separate, stronger feeling than what is felt after scores, sacks or victories. All offseason I preached to naysayers about the different culture in Cincinnati. I know it. You know it. I preached the usual dialogue. "The criminal culture has long departed. They're far from the caricature thugs represented by the mainstream. It's a new era. We're a high-character organization." It was necessary dialogue given the amounts of tired and untrue gangbanger jokes still thrown at our team. Yet they were just words.
On Sunday, people knew. During prior seasons, I'd watch that fight with the same embarrassment a mother feels when bailing her children out of the Principal's Office. This time around, I saw something entirely different. Camaraderie. Protection. A sense of team. A sense of pride. And, oh boy, it was wonderful.
Here's the moment after the red-face boss, the moment in which character is defined. Were they shaken or motivated? How Dalton, the offense and even the coaching staff reacted would define them with more conviction than any other single moment this year. And what followed was beautiful. The most bad-ass play in the book - deep ball to A.J. Green. 48 yards and some A.J. strutting later, Cincinnati had won the fight.
And seven minutes later, they won the war as well. The win was nice, but the display of this team's character was better. I know the values of this team. I know they're strong. And next time they trail late in a game, I know they have the resolve to dig deep within themselves for yet another gutsy comeback victory.
Sunday wasn't simply a win. It was an ass-kicking. Literally.