As the players and coaches have been saying, Sunday night’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers is just that: one loss. Yet a familiar feeling seems to hover over the Bengals following their primetime L, a lingering dissonance that creeps into the foreground like white noise we are unsure was never silenced. It is, Mr. Anderson, the sound of inevitability, that every time Zion is rebuilt it will be torn down by the machines. Ok, so maybe it isn’t quite as if humanity is enslaved by computers, but forgive me if being a Bengals fan sometimes feels like being trapped inside a Matrix. It is hard to digest any other reason why this team inevitably revisits the same old script every time it seems like a new one is being written. Because otherwise last night’s 30-20 beating by the Steelers may have just been the product of a lack of toughness.
Put simply, the Bengals were put in their place. You hear a lot about the "little brother" relationship the Bengals have with their more successful division rivals, and it shows in a game like Sunday’s. This was a case of little brother feeling good about doing some big things out in the world, then returning home to an older brother who, even in hard times, always seems to find a way to humble the younger sibling. I’m worried about one game because of the way Pittsburgh so forcibly snatched away a win and played keep away for four quarters. I’m worried about how the Bengals can perform under the brightest of lights. But most of all I’m worried about the Bengals’ ability to respond when it really matters.
Chris Collinsworth pretty accurately stated that the Steelers were simply "beating up" the Bengals following Antonito Brown’s 67-yard punt return TD in the 1st quarter. The replay of that return showed Bengals players getting lit up by blockers across the entire field; black and gold jerseys were sending orange striped ones flying into the air. The NFL will likely hand out several fines to the Steelers for hits dealt on that play, one of which saw Kevin Huber get knocked out for the season due to a broken jaw and cracked vertebra. With Keith Rivers’ similar ‘08 incident fresh in my mind, words cannot describe the emotion of vicious rage I felt watching the Steelers bully my team, only for the Bengals to respond with one miscue after the next. Throughout the apocalyptic opening quarter, my anger began to bubble into wrath -- at this point, winning didn’t even matter, I just wanted to see the Bengals send those cocky Steelers into the locker room bruised and bleeding. I waited for a strike back that never came, eventually finding myself pleading with the players on TV: get angry, for the love of God, just get angry! I never want to see my team play dirty, but I expect to see a fire that says, "you are not going to get away with this". Because the Steelers did get away with it, and the Bengals moved on to the next game.
Therein lies the problem: sometimes it seems like the Bengals are coming up short in the intensity department. I refuse to believe this is a team that lacks mental toughness just based on the team personalities and their ability to stay in the ring with the best of ‘em -- and win. I also understand and fully admire the steady, even-keeled culture Marvin Lewis has established in Cincinnati’s locker room, which never lets itself get too high or too low. Yet I couldn’t help but feel as if I could have contributed more on the field than some Bengals last night simply out of the desire to knock someone down. In a game like this last against their fiercest division rivals, one where postseason implications are at stake, teammates are getting pummeled left and right, and the whole world is watching for the Bengals to show just how much they’ve grown up, it would be nice to see the players you root for matching your own passionate intensity. It certainly worked last night for the Steelers. I don’t know if playing with more emotion would benefit the Bengals’ performance, but I know that someone getting mad last night and knocking Ben Roethlisberger on his ass would have sent the home team a message. As it stands, big brother Steeler just gave lil’ bro Bengal a four-quarter noogie, and with a playful slap on the rear said "go have fun in the playoffs, ya scamps!" Tired old script. Meanwhile, we’re still all waiting for the Bengals to break free from the Matrix…