Sometime around Saturday afternoon I began to get that feeling. You know the one: that uneasy feeling in your stomach when you really think about the game ahead. You feign confidence, but so much history and so many variables create doubts. In Pittsburgh, lousy weather, opponent with nothing to lose while the good guys have so much riding on it. Steelers Week.
As I thought about the game earlier in the week, I was reminded of a clip (which I've embedded for your viewing pleasure) from the great movie, Tombstone. Early in the film, Wyatt Earp (played by actor Kurt Russell) goes into a saloon where there is a cocky, unruly customer, Johnny Tyler (played by a then-plump Billy Bob Thornton), who is ruining the ambiance for other patrons. Earp sets the guy straight with cool confidence and a tough guy approach, and subsequently kicks him out of a bar that he doesn't own yet.
It might seem tacky, but I envisioned the Bengals pulling "an Earp" on the Steelers this Sunday, which would be a metaphor for the changing of the guard in the division. "Somethin' on your mind?", the Steelers would ask. "I just want to let you know that you're sitting in my seat", the Bengals would respond. They would then kick the loud-mouthed bully out of a building that they were comfortable in and assert themselves firmly in the AFC North throne.
Only, as I look at it now, it's almost as if the teams reversed character roles. The Steelers made the Bengals bleed, literally (thanks to a real tough guy hit by a Pittsburgh linebacker on Bengals punter Kevin Huber), and the Bengals had the familiar tail-between-their-legs look about them. This Cincinnati team, who had been so physically dominant all year--even in the first meeting with with the Steelers--got out-physicaled at Heinz Field on Sunday. Instead of being a power team, they randomly and suddenly became a finesse team and it led to their demise. The grizzled veteran showed the young guy what was what.
You can count how many Bengals players actually came to play on one hand and still have fingers left over. Running back Giovani Bernard did, as did return man Brandon Tate. Say what you want about Andy Dalton, but he was efficient on the evening, given that his receivers were busy dropping passes and fumbling the ball away. Other than those three, it's hard to point to any others in stripes (including referees) that looked prepared to play a huge game. Missed tackles, penalties, special teams gaffes and turnovers spelled doom.
So, what was it? Could it have something to do with a number of players battling the flu? BenJarvus Green-Ellis, James Harrison and Vontaze Burfict all had miserable weeks because of illnesses. The cold weather probably enhanced any symptoms that they were playing with. That could be the case, but that is a pretty weak excuse. The accumulated injuries and overall game plan certainly didn't help, either though.
For years, Marvin Lewis has been attempting to build the Bengals into a Steeler-like team, constantly looking at Pittsburgh as the shining beacon of what an NFL franchise should be. Ground and pound offensive plan with solid defense. He thought that he had it in 2009, but that turned out to be a house of cards and has tried to turn this current team into a more well-rounded version.
A team that out-muscled a solid Lions squad, beat Tom Brady's Patriots and Aaron Rodgers' Packers, came out and played scared against the bullies of the block. The all too familiar deer-in-the-headlights look came over the entire team and though they had been getting around 150 rushing yards the past two weeks, they barely cracked 50 Sunday night. Did we mention that Pittsburgh let up over 180 yards rushing the previous week to Miami?
"I think to summarize today, we didn't make anything happen," Lewis said in the post game interview. Bernard followed that up with "We didn't come out ready to play". Translation: the coaches didn't do their jobs well enough and the players let the moment get too big for them. How many times have we seen this from Lewis and Co.? As I touched on last month, the Bengals are now 6-15 (1-2 this season) in primetime games with Lewis at the helm over the past 11 years. SIX AND FIFTEEN.
My biggest problem with Sunday? This physical Bengals team that cowered in Pittsburgh on Sunday night never got angry enough to respond to what happened with Huber. If the coaches and the players themselves couldn't get fired up enough to give it their all in an important game (on numerous levels), you would think that they would be able to once they saw one of their own get rocked in a questionable (at best) play. They didn't.
Though the loss was gut-wrenching and disappointing, I've had time to digest the whole scenario and am looking at it a bit differently. If this is truly "a different Bengals team", they will need to show it in the rebound next week when they host the Vikings. They're already saying the right things, now they need to just put the words into actions. I personally predicted that the Bengals would go 3-3 in the AFC North, so a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh isn't a total surprise. The overall performance, however, was.
The Steelers outplayed the Bengals and were far better prepared for a tough divisional game. They are able to say that they won their season's Super Bowl Sunday night--meanwhile, everyone else will be paying attention to the Bengals' quest to play in the real one at the end of January.