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Not Deja Vu All Over Again

I can remember exactly where I was on the night of January 9, 2016. I was in Thompsonville, Michigan at a friend’s cabin. We were there for a ski trip, taking some much-needed R&R from our brutal college schedules at Ohio State that included sound engineering (aka, fooling around on the guitar), programming (aka, playing video games) and event planning (aka, partying). Okay, it wasn’t all that brutal.

Anyway, among our group, which included about five of us and some girlfriends, I was the only Cincinnati Bengals fan. I’d be surprised if anyone else even realized a playoff football game was going to be broadcast that night. I did (obviously), and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world.

Let’s rewind a bit: the 2015 Bengals were, in many ways, the pinnacle of Marvin Lewis’s tenure as the head coach in Cincinnati. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green were at the peak of their powers, and the Bengals sported a tough, hard-hitting, straight nasty defense led by All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, all-time Bengals sack leader Carlos Dunlap, reclamation-project-turned-Pro-Bowler Adam “Pacman” Jones, and the ferocious Vontaze Burfict at linebacker.

After 12 years on the job, Lewis was about to have his moment. He hadn’t won a playoff game (gosh, doesn't that narrative feel like ancient history now?), but his tenure was undeniably one of the most successful in Bengals history. Though postseason success was elusive, Lewis still captured four AFC North crowns, churned out numerous Pro Bowl and All Pro caliber players, and amazingly finished his Bengals career with a winning 131 - 122 record. His legacy is a complicated one, but for a franchise with such a pitiful track record (at the time, at least), his impact cannot be overstated.

The 2015 Bengals would be Lewis’s fourth, and last, division-title winners. They blazed through their first eight games undefeated, but faltered somewhat down the stretch, finishing 12 - 4, still tied for the best record in Bengals history. Dalton’s thumb injury in Week 13 kept him out of the Wild Card round, but this Bengals team seemed well-equipped to take down the Pittsburgh Steelers, even if they were trotting out A.J. McCarron at signal-caller instead of the Red Rifle.

So, there I was - sitting inches from a tiny, little TV on a tiny, little ottoman in front of a chair in a tiny, little cabin in the middle of the woods in Michigan. In a token of solidarity, my friends joined me in cheering on the Bengals. None of them really had any rooting interest, but none was a Steelers fan, either. They weren’t really invested. I, on the other hand, was coming out of my shoes with nervous tension.

The game was a slog, and neither offense could find any rhythm whatsoever. Of the first eight drives of the game, five were “three and outs”. Pittsburgh would strike first with a 39-yard Chris Boswell field goal, and he would drive home another 30-yard field goal on the Steelers next drive. It was 6 - 0 as both teams made their way to the locker room. It was so boring, everyone else moved into the kitchen to play cards. You can’t really blame them. After all, who wants to watch McCarron throw passes into the dirt for three hours?

After halftime, the 6 - 0 deficit became 9 - 0, and then 15 - 0. The Steelers looked like they were going to bury the Bengals. And then the Bengals got a big break.

Just seconds after the start of the fourth quarter, Green drew a 42-yard pass interference penalty that gave the Bengals first and goal from the Steelers four-yard line. Two Jeremy Hill runs later, and the deficit had been cut by more than half. A Mike Nugent 36-yard field goal on the Bengals next drive made the game 15 - 10. It was a ballgame again.

The Bengals defense forced a three and out on the Steelers next possession, and seven plays later, McCarron connected with Green on a 25-yard touchdown to give the Bengals their first lead of the night. With Roethlisberger out of the game with an injury he suffered at the end of the third quarter, it was up to backup QB Landry Jones to save the day. Incredibly, Burfict intercepted Jones on the next play. With less than two minutes, he’d seemingly clinched the game.

I was ecstatic. I was euphoric. This was it. The moment I had waited my entire life to see: the Bengals were going to win a playoff game. I wanted to do barefoot laps in 20℉ weather around the snow-bombarded cabin. I wanted to cannonball into the frozen creek fifty feet below.

That elation quickly turned to nervous concern, as on the very next play Hill was stripped by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. I cannot, to this day, explain why Hill didn’t just fall over on the play. Maybe he thought he was going to break off the decisive touchdown run. Maybe his coaches didn’t emphasize quite enough how important it was to hold onto the football. Maybe he was suffering from amnesia and thought it was only the end of the first half. Whatever the reason, it was disastrous - but not right away.

There wasn’t much time for the Steelers to mount a drive. Besides, they had to go nearly sixty yards in less than ninety seconds just to get into field goal range. And best news of all for the Bengals, the Steelers options at QB were Jones, who was awful, or an old, fat, banged-up Roethlisberger. They chose the latter, but either way, the odds still were in the Bengals favor. With the way this defense was playing, it would take a total and complete meltdown to lose this game - and meltdown, the Bengals did.

Roethlisberger found a couple receivers on some short completions, and suddenly, the Steelers offense was finding some rhythm just as my heart went into arrhythmia. The Bengals needed a stop in the worst way, and Burfict took the challenge head-on - as in, he literally tried to take Antonio Brown’s head off. Burfict hit a defenseless Brown in the head on a crossing route, drawing a back-breaking unnecessary roughness penalty. Just like that, the Steelers were in field goal range.

Burfict’s idiotic play was bad enough, but to make matters worse, in the middle of the chaos, Pacman got into a scuffle with Steelers assistant Joey Porter (and in Pacman’s defense, Porter should never have been on the field in the first place) which ultimately ended with Pacman bumping into a referee and drawing another 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Boswell would drain the now-35-yard field goal with ease. The Steelers were back in front.

With fourteen seconds remaining, the Bengals had a chance at one more offensive play. It didn’t matter. McCarron’s deep shot to A.J. Green fell harmlessly to the turf. The Bengals were losers yet again.

I was in shock. Utter disbelief. Just minutes earlier, it looked like the Bengals had wrapped up this game. Burfict had intercepted a pass with less than two minutes remaining in the game. How could this have happened?

I remember staring blankly at the TV. My friends tried their best to console me - kind of. They didn’t really know what to say. Nobody did. They had seen me elated, and now they saw me dejected. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t yelling. I wasn’t making excuses. I was just sitting there in stunned silence, hoping, wishing, praying that I hadn’t just witnessed what I thought I had.

I remember climbing the ladder up to the loft. I wanted to be alone for a while. I sat down on one of the beds. I tried to rationalize everything, but my brain couldn’t process it. I was mentally broken.

My girlfriend at the time tried her best to comfort me. She didn’t care one lick about sports, but she was kind and she wanted to be there for me. I distinctly remember her saying, “I’ve never seen anyone this affected by a sporting event.”

“It’s not that they lost,” I replied weakly, “it’s the way they lost. They had it, and then they gave it away. I’ve never seen a team lose like that.”

So, why am I telling you all this? Why am I making you (and me) relive one of the darkest moments in all of Bengal fandom?

Because what happened this past weekend in Kansas City was nothing like that night.

Yes, the Bengals lost a heartbreaking playoff game. Yes, a costly penalty by a Bengals defender was the difference. But context matters, and the context of the Bengals loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship was significantly different from the Wild Card loss to the Steelers in ‘15.

Let’s start with the obvious: the Bengals were playing in the freaking AFC Championship Game. Just eighteen months ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d live to even see the Bengals win one, single, measly playoff game. Now, I’ve gotten to see - in person - two Bengals playoff victories. Back in 2015, we were all desperate for that hideous winless-playoff streak to end. It’s year four of Zac Taylor’s tenure as head coach and year three of Joe Burrow’s tenure as starting quarterback. We’ve now gotten five playoff wins (and the first time the Bengals have won a playoff game in back-to-back seasons), back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances (also a Bengals first), and a trip to the Super Bowl.

Football is a fast-moving sport. The players are some of the greatest athletes in the world. But fortunes change in the NFL quickly, too. Just three years ago, the Bengals were doormats. Today, the whole world seems united in the idea that the Bengals were robbed of another Super Bowl - go figure.

There’s also a considerable difference in roster construction between the two Bengals teams to consider. Dalton was a nice player, a nice teammate and a nice guy. He was all-around pretty…nice. The “Dalton Line” was an actual term used by people in football to describe the boundary between a QB being a “franchise guy” and one who was not. If you thought your QB was better than Dalton, go ahead and sign him to that huge extension. If he isn’t, you’re probably better off spending that money elsewhere and taking a swing on a younger QB in the draft.

Burrow is so far above the “Dalton Line,” it’s silly. He’s the Bengals answer to Joe Montana. He is a no-doubt franchise QB. As long as he’s in Cincinnati, the Bengals are in good hands. Critically, Burrow has shown the ability to compete at a high level while under intense pressure, and the ability to elevate his teammates and the organization - two things Dalton, sadly, was never able to do.

The 2015 team also relied on volatile personalities like Burfict and Jones. Those two were the emotional heartbeat of some really good Bengals defenses, but their unreliability play-to-play meant that disaster was always and unequivocally going to follow success. Lewis deserves credit for having the gumption to take a chance on these two heavily-flawed, but supremely-talented defenders, but all that is wiped away when confronted with how intensely problematic they were on a yearly basis.

Even more importantly, this current Bengals team has real leadership. Players like Burrow, center Ted Karras, defensive end Sam Hubbard, and safety Von Bell - these guys would never allow such behavior to continue. For as great as players like A.J. Green and Geno Atkins were, they weren’t the confrontational type. Asking those two to reign in Pacman or Burfict wasn’t just challenging, it was downright impossible.

This current Bengals team has players that hold each other accountable. They motivate one another. They bring out the best in each other. All they want to do is win football games, and we’ve already seen the fruits of that dedication.

Joe Burrow is not Andy Dalton. Ja’Marr Chase is not A.J. Green. Joseph Ossai is not Vontaze Burfict. Eli Apple is not Pacman Jones (even if Eli can get a bit chatty at times). Zac Taylor is not Marvin Lewis.

It sucks to lose in the AFC Championship - the Bengals were 3 - 0 in this game before last Sunday, and in all honesty, they should be 4 - 0. The Bengals are a better football team than the Kansas City Chiefs, but they didn’t play like it. The referees might not have helped the Bengals effort, but the opportunities to win were there - the Bengals just didn’t seize them.

But still, that’s back-to-back AFC Championship Games! Who would have thunk? Remember, the Bengals were 4 - 11 - 1 just two years ago. They were 2 - 14 in 2019. That’s a tremendous organizational rise no matter the sport, no matter the franchise, and no matter the context. This Bengals team will be back in the mix next year, and the year after that, and the year after that too. They didn’t win it all this year, but I’ve learned not to bet against Burrow and the Bengals.

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