CINCINNATI — It’ll be known around these parts as “The Meltdown.”
With a chance to finally end their playoff futility, the Bengals let it all slip away.
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A fumble, a defensive lapse, and two ugly penalties set up Pittsburgh’s winning field goal for an 18-16 victory on Saturday night — the second-most crushing playoff loss in Cincinnati history.
They solidified their reputation as a team that can’t keep it together in the big games.
The Bengals (12-5) won the AFC North and tied the club record for victories in a season. They’d won a dozen only two other times — in 1981 and 1988, when they went to the Super Bowl and lost to the 49ers both times. The 1988 season ended with Joe Montana leading a last-minute touchdown drive aided when the Bengals dropped an interception.
In this one, they lost not only their cool, but their credibility.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones — players with a history of getting out of control — drew personal fouls that moved the Steelers in range for the winning kick. Coach Marvin Lewis watched his team come unglued under pressure again.
“This was a disgraceful performance by the Cincinnati Bengals,” said CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, the quarterback of Cincinnati’s 1988 Super Bowl team.
“An ugly performance by one Vontaze Burfict, who should not only be fined, but suspended for a significant amount of time. The guy is a danger on the field to opposing football players.
“I’m a former Bengal and I’m embarrassed by the way this game ended and by the way these guys acted on the field (Saturday night). I feel bad for Marvin Lewis.
“And I’ll tell you one thing, if Marvin Lewis can’t control his players, maybe Marvin Lewis shouldn’t be standing there on the sidelines coaching.”
Lewis fell to 0-7 in the playoffs as a head coach, the most such losses to start a career in NFL history.
His teams have dropped opening-round games in five consecutive seasons, another NFL record — no team has done it more than three teams. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 25 years, the sixth-longest streak in league history.
This one was the worst of the seven under Lewis. All they had to do was keep their cool and close it out.
“I’ve got no words, man,” said receiver A.J. Green, whose touchdown catch put Cincinnati up with 1:50 to play. “I’ve got no words.”
Lewis will have to answer for it. Owner Mike Brown likes Lewis and has repeatedly given him contract extensions during his 13 seasons in Cincinnati, even as the playoff losses piled up. It’s unlikely there will be any change at the top.
Instead, Lewis will have to deal with the fallout.
“He knows between now and the beginning of next season, he’s going to have to deal with something with regards to this game and the repercussions of it all the way up until the next season,” former Ravens coach Brian Billick said on the NFL Network. “Every single day as a head coach. That’s a lot to carry around.”
The player who made the most egregious mistake — Burfict’s shoulder to the head of defenseless receiver Antonio Brown — has been one of Lewis’ projects.
The Bengals signed him after every team passed on him in the 2012 draft after he repeatedly lost his composure and cost his team with personal fouls at Arizona State. He’s one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers, a game-changer with his speed and toughness. He’s also one of its most penalized players.
He got a personal foul during a loss at Denver on Dec. 28 for a late hit. When the Bengals lost to the Steelers 33-20 on Dec. 13, Burfict was in the middle of a pregame scuffle.
He drew three personal fouls during that game — for roughing the passer, grabbing the facemask, and unnecessary roughness — and was fined $69,454 by the league.
With the Steelers still needing yards to get within field goal range on Saturday, Burfict gave them the boost they needed by taking a shot at Brown’s head.
Jones, who also has a history of losing his cool, then got a penalty for bumping a referee while trying to get at Steelers coach Joey Porter on the field while the Steelers were attending to the injured Brown.
Lewis declined to criticize either player directly after the game.
“I’m not going to single out our guys,” Lewis said. “We had enough chances to win the football game.”
And as Lewis watched, they melted down.