Gene Collier: Is the 'wait' of history on Bengals side?
January 9, 2016 12:00 AM
Jerome Bettis picks up 25 yards in the 4th quarter of a Steelers victory over the Bengals on January 4, 2006 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati -- the last time the teams met in the postseason.
T’was only but one truly fearsome giant that bestrode the landscape of the AFC North in the football season about to climax, and that giant wore the orange and black of the striped Cincinnati Bengals, but tonight it is left to the Steelers, who not four weeks ago broke the giant’s thumb, to return to the Queen City and break the giant’s heart.
If all of that comes dressed as the rickety narrative of a fairy tale, well, it’s only because a fairy tale is all it may be.
There are, you might have noticed in the feverish ramp up to the NFL playoffs, several narratives in play for Saturday night’s crack-up, from the game-worthiness of a suddenly indispensable Steelers running back named Fitzgerald DAndre Toussaint (whom fans might have guessed just two months ago was a tour guide at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum), to the likelihood the Steelers are sailing toward another Burfict Storm, in which the reviled Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict attempts to unnerve them with his irredeemably dirty play, to the way Cincinnati’s backup quarterback, one AJ McCarron, will deal with the inconvenient truth that the next Bengals passer to throw for a touchdown his first playoff game will be the first.
Still, there’s a cloying suspicion that, in spite of the immediate Steelers testimony, it will all turn on the weight of history, or more precisely, the wait of history.
“How old were you,” I asked defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt, “the last time the Bengals won a playoff game?”
To which the mountainous second-year stud out of Notre Dame responded precisely the way I’d anticipated:
“When did they win one?”
“January, 1991,” I said.
“I wasn’t born yet,” he said. “I was born in 1993.”
I thought so, but here’s the larger question. Does it mean something, anything, that this Bengals franchise is so desperately, historically overdue to win in January.
“No, no; it’s a mano-a-mano game and you’re gonna play exactly what’s in front of you, exactly what’s there, nothing else,” said Tuitt, whose Dec. 13 interception return begat the breakage of starting Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s thumb. “There’s been no discussion of that. Not at all.”
And to that cornerback Ross Cockrell agreed, although he’s in the same Millennial fog when it comes to Cincinnati’s tortured post-season history.
“How old were you the last time the Bengals won a playoff game,” I asked again.
“When was the last time they won a playoff game?” he asked back.
“I wasn’t born yet.”
I thought not, but wouldn’t that make a body nervous on the whole weight-of-history thing?
“I don’t think so, (but) in college, I went to Duke, and we hadn’t won a bowl game in a long time, and it was something that we talked about a lot, that we strived for and pushed for,” said Cockrell. “But for us over here, we’re the Steelers, and we have a standard, and that’s it.”
Even among Steelers who were alive the last time the Bengals won a playoff game, and who actually played against them in one, the curve of history is simply not in play here.
“Did I hear that (Bengals coach) Marvin (Lewis) is 0 for 6?” asked long snapper Greg Warren.
Lewis is, in fact, 0-6 in the postseason.
“Well, it has nothin’ to do with the team they have now,” Warren said as one of the four Steelers remaining from the victory in Cincinnati that triggered a Lombardi run 10 years ago this month. “It has nothing to do with us. When you look at their body of (post-season) work as a whole you might be able to judge somethin’, but it has nothin’ to do with this year. It’s like saying that we’ve won all these Super Bowls, well, there’s only a handful of guys in here who have won a Super Bowl. The organization has that experience, but not the team. Maybe it helps people’s confidence knowin’ that they’re on a team that’s part of that tradition, and this team does have some confidence.
“But I don’t think not winning a game in forever will have any bearing on this. I know Burfict and those guys, they don’t care about that.”
I’m pretty sure they don’t, but I’ll bet they don’t know this, the true stat that shrieks of the monstrous dichotomy between postseason pedigree when it comes to the Bengals and the Steelers.
How best to put it?
The Steelers once won more playoff games in succession between 1974 and 1976 (7) than the Bengals have won in their entire 48-year history (5).
It’s unlikely that anyone in the winning locker room at Riverfront Stadium on Jan. 6, 1991, anyone associated with a 41-14 victory over the old Houston Oilers, ever thought that before the next Bengals playoff win, history would deliver everything from the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope to the end of the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson to the fall of Saddam Hussein to the murderous destruction of the World Trade Center to an America with an African American President, with legal same-sex marriage and legal marijuana.
A lot’s happened in a quarter century, as it will, but among all improbable, impossible, imponderable events, something as pedestrian as a Bengals playoff victory was not among them.
No wonder Lewis defines his team’s mission tonight as an exorcism. This is how far it’s come. The Bengals need more than a rock solid 60 minutes of football; they need an old priest and a young priest.
And somehow, after all these years, whatever they need, they’ll get.
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