See, this is why you can never really buy the Bengals, right?
No matter how competent they look, how promising their profile through any occasional autumn, how destined they may appear to be changing the stripes on an endangered species that hasn’t won a playoff game in a generation, they still have nights like Sunday at the ready.
It’s a special kind of performance that’s pure Queen City.
Cincinnati’s ‘A’ game might still carry them deep into January, somehow, but their ‘B’ game still stands for Bunglemania, and the rendition Sunday was typically bravura.
The Steelers just happened to light up the Heinz Field stage Sunday night for NBC, but just about any opponent would have found itself ahead by three touchdowns at halftime given the unrelenting slapstick Marvin Lewis’s team unveiled for a quick-snoozing prime-time audience.
“I wouldn’t say everything worked; that was far from perfect,” Mike Tomlin said 10 minutes after a 30-20 Steelers victory, his 10th in 14 Bengals encounters. “But obviously we did do enough to win, and we had some splash plays.”
Some crash plays too.
The mere fact that Bengals corner Terence Newman got his name on the inactive list in the pregame hours, meaning that second-year defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick would be making his first start since leaving the University of Alabama, did not by itself have to signal the complete unraveling of the first place team in the AFC North Division, but that’s what it did.
On the game’s first scrimmage play, Ben Roethlisberger whipped a perfectly non-threatening flat pass to Le’Veon Bell, who advanced it 5 yards to the 25, where Kirkpatrick, in his first act as an NFL starter, twisted Bell’s facemask for the personal foul penalty that moved the pig briskly to the 40.
Cue the tsunami.
Within minutes, Bengals punter Kevin Huber would drop a snap at the goal line and Steelers big-play maven Will Allen crashed that scene, kick returner Cedric Peerman would signal for a fair catch on a kickoff, tackle Andre Smith would get called for a false start, and a sleepwalking Bengals defense would give Roethlisberger so much time to find Antonio Brown in the end zone for a 14-0 lead that NBC ran a snap-to-catch-clock graphic showing that Big Ben actually had stood there for nearly nine seconds.
Were Heinz Field a hotel, Roethlisberger would have been credited with an overnight stay.
Sixty-four seconds after that, Brown was in the Bengals end zone again, this time with a 67-yard punt return on which Huber had his jaw broken by Steelers special teamer Terence Garvin, who leveled the wary punter as he tracked Brown toward midfield.
“I did not see it,” Tomlin said when asked if Garvin’s block violated anything in addition to Huber’s facial structure.
Neither did the punter, but in the process, the poor specialist left the field with what was described to the assembled media as a “dental injury,” which I believe to be the first such designation in press box history. Thus, after all these years of playing (or at least attempting to play) smashmouth football, the Steelers finally sent someone to the locker room with a smashed mouth.
Huber would have been better off just dropping the snap again.
This left the Bengals without their punter in a game in which it appeared they would be punting almost interminably, as the Steelers led, 24-0, before Andy Dalton and A.J. Green figured out that they might be able to do something against a Steelers defense that had allowed 12 completions of 40 yards or longer in 13 games.
“We prepared hard and we executed,” said defensive end Cam Heyward, finding no reason to be surprised at a 24-0 Steelers lead against a first-place team. “We executed on both sides of the ball and when getting something out of your special teams always helps, too. When you get all that clickin’ we’re a very tough team to beat.”
By the time they finally scared up a touchdown after a 52-yard kickoff return by Brandon Tate, the Bengals had all but squandered any notion of embellishing their playoff position, which was only what this appointment was supposed to be all about.
Earlier Sunday, the New England Patriots lost in Miami, meaning the path of AFC postseason politics had cleared. A Bengals victory against a 5-8 team playing on a bone-cold night in front of the smallest crowd in Heinz Field history (45,873) — not exactly one of Tarzan’s Seven Challenges — might set the orange and black on their way toward — are you ready? — their first playoff bye in 26 years.
What the Bengals put on tape for any potential playoff opponent Sunday night was little short of a blueprint for their quick elimination. Still in existence this morning are the Steelers’ ephemeral playoff chances, which technically exceed those that you’ll hit that Mega Millions jackpot, but only slightly.
“We just put all together, played for each other, didn’t quite even with the lead,” Allen said. “That’s what we’ve gotta keep doin’ these last two games. You don’t know what lies ahead.”
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.