Blowouts against the Texans (in 2011) and Colts (in 2014) quickly articulated eventualities. The Bengals were closer in the Texans rematch in 2012 and a poor rushing defense, along with poor ball security against the Chargers (in 2013), promoted obvious disappointment.
Nothing could prepare you for the ending of Cincinnati's 18-16 loss to the Steelers on Saturday night.
Nearing the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh led 15-0 and the Bengals had limited momentum. Rain pounded the spirits of fans and players, and it kept coming. There were 38 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, scanning the field for an open receiver on a third-and-18 scenario, spun around. After Vontaze Burfict discarded Marcus Gilbert, the linebacker drove Roethlisberger into the ground on Pittsburgh's five-yard line. Following a 41-yard punt and 42-yard pass interference near the front right pylon, Jeremy Hill powered into the end zone to reduce Pittsburgh's lead 15-7 with 14:00 remaining in the game.
Hill and Tyler Eifert became dependable weapons during Cincinnati's ensuing possession, but it eventually stalled. Mike Nugent nailed a 36-yard conversion to reduce Pittsburgh's lead 15-10 with 5:17 remaining. After Cincinnati's defense forced another three-and-out, Adam Jones returned the ensuing punt 24 yards to the Steelers 45-yard line. AJ McCarron sustained the drive, converting a fourth down on a nine-yard toss to Marvin Jones. Two plays later, the Bengals had third and seven from the Steelers' 25-yard line with 1:56 remaining in the game. McCarron took the snap, looked downfield and connects with A.J. Green on a 25-yard touchdown.
Yet, the Bengals lack of obvious maturity led to a significant, if not embarrassing collapse. Jeremy Hill fumbled the football on the ensuing possession. Roethlisberger reentered the game. Vontaze Burfict tried destroying wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was clearly unable to catch the football as Burfict approached. Pittsburgh, on Cincinnati's 47-yard line, was now on the 32. In rainy conditions, it would have been a difficult kick for Chris Boswell. Regardless, Adam Jones, who is a tremendous player, became a liability, lacking absolute professionalism with an inability to control his emotions and he drew another personal foul, putting the Steelers on Cincinnati's 17-yard line. It was an easy conversion for Boswell to secure the Steelers' game-winning field goal.
I'm angry. Pissed off, even. The Bengals found new ways of embarrassing themselves and the city; this one will be impossible to forget.
It wasn't pretty early. The Steelers diced and powered through the Bengals' defensive line, generating 50 yards during the first 15 minutes. If this storyline sounds familiar, it should. Heading into Saturday's game, the Bengals have allowed 164 yards rushing in each of their last four playoff games, in addition to six combined touchdowns. However, Cincinnati simply couldn't respond, with Jeremy Hill rushing four times without acquiring a single yard in the first quarter.
However, as NFL games tend to do, the storyline slowly evolved into a game of lost opportunities for the Bengals.
With 13:38 remaining in the second quarter, safety Reggie Nelson blitzed the A-gap with linebacker Vincent Rey on third down. As he was wrapping Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Nelson collided with Rey, twisting his ankle. Granted, the Steelers were forced to punt, but the Bengals lost Nelson for the rest of the rain-soaked night.
Later in the first half, with 6:43 remaining in the second quarter, defensive tackle Geno Atkins sacked Roethlisberger on third down, which should have forced Pittsburgh to punt. Domata Peko, sporting his poncho on the sidelines, walked onto the field and began chirping at a Steelers player, pushing him. Officials called unsportsmanlike conduct and Peko began arguing with Wallace Gilberry. Regardless, what should have been a Steelers punt turned into a gift-wrapped first down. Gilberry and Peko hugged and made up... actually.
With 5:12 remaining in the second, safety George Iloka scooped up a Markus Wheaton fumble, forced by Vontaze Burfict. Three plays later, under intense rain, McCarron threw a horrible pass that led to an Antwon Blake interception. Steelers placekicker Chris Boswell converted a 39-yard field goal, giving the Steelers a 3-0 lead with 2:27 left on the clock. Naturally, Cincinnati secured another three-and-out, their fourth straight in the second quarter alone and immediately punted back to Pittsburgh.
Boswell added another field goal with 33 seconds remaining in the second, concluding a 63-yard drive that began on Pittsburgh's 25-yard line, with a little help on a horrible 15-yard penalty on Shawn Williams tackle and an interception by Vincent Rey, who studied at the Lewis Billups school of missed opportunities.
Running back Jeremy Hill, captain of a struggling running game, notched 38 yards on a sprint down the sidelines during Cincinnati's opening possession in the third quarter.
Naturally, as Saturday's theme developed, Jarvus Jones strip-sacked McCarron on the next play and the Steelers recovered the fumble on Cincinnati's 47-yard line. An official review reversed what was originally determined a touchdown and the officials added a personal foul for a celebration. Martavis Bryant navigated 44 yards on a reverse, reaching the Bengals' 20-yard line where Boswell notched his third field goal of the game, giving Pittsburgh a 9-0 lead with 10:09 remaining in the third.
Pittsburgh, gaining confidence, scored their first touchdown with 5:02 remaining in the third during an acrobatic touchdown reception by Bryant. At that point, the Steelers were leading 15-0 and the Bengals had zero momentum under a bloated raincloud that mercilessly dampened the spirit of Bengals players and fans. Things changed, and changed again, but, the Bengals' loss on Saturday night will sting, for a very long time.