Before it all blew up, Vontaze Burfict had a sack, a forced fumble, a pick and one more QB hit on Saturday in an immense outing.
Bengals running back Jeremy Hill's first two fumbles this season got him benched. The third one did him no favors, either. But the fourth and last one had the direst of consequences.
The Paul Brown Stadium crowd of 63,257 was in a full-throated ecstatic din. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict had just picked off Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones with a diving interception with 1:36 left and the Bengals had seemingly broken the 25-year play-off drought in the greatest way imaginable. With a16-point fourth quarter that erased a 15-0 deficit against the dreaded Steelers. All they had to do was make Pittsburgh use its last three timeouts and . . . .
And Hill fumbled the first down carry for six yards, ripped out of his hands by linebacker Ryan Shazier and recovered by cornerback Russ Cockrell at the 9. That allowed the Bengals vampire, Ben Roethlisberger, to emerge from his crypt to pull off the last winning drive.
"Our defense played their butts off. Especially against this offense," said Hill of an effort that held the NFL's third best passing offense to 240 yards and a TD. "And after getting that interception to pretty much seal it. I let down the fans. I let down my coaches, I let down my teammates."
Some were second guessing head coach Marvin Lewis even giving it to Hill. The play, they said, was take three knees, make the Steelers use their timeouts, kick a 45-yard field goal to go up 19-15 and make the Steelers have to score a touchdown.
"I don't think we were necessarily in field goal range there," Lewis said. "You want to get the first down, and win the football game there by running the ball, and we gained six or seven yards on first down. I'm not second guessing that."
Hill said Shazier didn't come out of nowhere.
"A couple of guys were on me and one guy kind of shook the ball out. It's inexcusable at that point in the game," said Hill, who wouldn't say the ball was slick from the game-long rain. No excuses. No excuses."
Hill was one of the victims of the heated tempers. He had to be restrained late in the third quarter when Shazier appeared to drill running back Giovani Bernard with the crown of his helmet in a hit that put Bernard motionless and face down. He left never to return out of the concussion protocol. The Bengals were wondering why there wasn't a helmet-to-helmet penalty.
"I was a little upset they were celebrating," Hill said. "Gio works so hard and seeing him every day how much he works and everything he does for this team . . . To see somebody hit him like that and lay him out like that and see people celebrating. I lost it at that point."
There were a lot of moments like that Saturday night where the tempers took over.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium for the Wild Card playoff game 1/9/2016
"I can't speak for the defense," Hill said. "I had my moment, and I think a lot of people had their moments. With everything that has gone on for the last five years, everyone was doing anything they could to win this game."
FLAGGED: Burfict, with his diving pick with 1:23 left, and cornerback Adam Jones, with his 24-yard punt return that set up what looked like to be the winning TD drive, were ensconced as civic heroes. Along with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, they had led the Bengals into the AFC Divisional round.
But that all got wiped away when Burfict was called for unnecessary roughness with 18 seconds left when he was called for hitting defenseless wide receiver Antonio Brown going over the middle for a ball that was uncatchable. That put the ball on the Bengals 32, but the winning field goal with 14 seconds left was a chip shot from 35 yards after Jones was hit for another 15 yards when he appeared to get into an altercation as Brown was being checked on the field by the medical staff and Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter.
It appeared that Jones threw a punch at Porter.
Jones objected to Porter being on the field since coaches aren't allowed on the field and Burfict told a media group around his locker that Porter was cussing at Jones. Jones was upset that Burfict's play was called a penalty when several other similar plays in the game weren't called, one of them being Shazier's hit on Bernard.
"What's the difference?" Jones asked in a brief explosion of frustration at the officials at his locker.
That seemed to be Lewis' question, too. Lewis, a member of the NFL Competition Committee, didn't jump in with all the rest on the criticism of Burfict.
"He's trying to go over and defend the play. There were a lot of plays out there and calls went different ways," Lewis said. "They deemed that to be a hit to the head I guess, and others not today."
Lewis had no comment on the Jones' penalty.
"I'm not going to single out our guys," Lewis said. "We had enough chances to win the football game."
But Lewis preached poise all week, even conjuring up the old Paul Brown line about keeping poise under stress and making it the theme of the week. To a man, the Bengals seemed to know it had escaped them again in a clutch situation.
"Same story," said left end Carlos Dunlap. "Bengals beating Bengals."
Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, whose sack was turned into a first down when tackle Domata Peko was called a penalty for coming off the bench and yelling at a Steeler, broke his season-long silence to reflect on the game and season.
"We lost our cool. We have to play with more poise," Atkins said. "It's one of the worst losses I've been a part of. To have the lead with (1:23) left and it ticks off like that, it's pretty bad."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth said everyone on the team has to take some kind of responsibility for a lack of composure.
"You have to have better control than that, for sure," Whitworth said. "We just have to be smart throughout the game and make the best decisions to win, so I don't know what all happened and I guess I'll know more tomorrow. It's unfortunate."
Whitworth also refrained from going after Burfict.
"I'm not going to single him out," Whitworth said. "All of us could have done something better to help our team, whatever that is."
Safety George Iloka said he never looks at one play making or breaking a game. Same in this one as he defended Burfict and Jones.
"Listen, those two didn't lose the game," Iloka said. "They are who they are. We wouldn't even be in the playoffs if it wasn't for those two this year. Don't even start with that.
"All the plays they make. The play Vontaze made. That put us in position. The plays that (Jones) made this year. I'm not worried about that. That did not lose this game. It was a combination of other things."
GUTTY D: One of the many tough things about this loss is how well the defense played despite a rash of key injuries all throughout the game.
Safety Reggie Nelson went out in the first quarter with an ankle injury after he sacked Roethlisberger and when replacement Shawn Williams occasionally switched positions got nicked off and on, rookie Derron Smith took some snaps.
When starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick went down with a quad injury in the second half, Leon Hall moved to the outside and Chris Lewis-Harris took over the slot. Peko went down with a foot injury in the third quarter (he was in a boot after the game), leaving them with just Atkins and Pat Sims at tackle, and Sims was gutting through an injured foot of his own. How often does that happen? Peko was playing in his 102nd straight game.
And still the defense ended up holding Pittsburgh to three points and 40 yards below their average.
ILOKA WISTFUL: Iloka is one of 10 Saturday starters who are potential free agents this offseason. He also seemed to have read reports that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is the frontrunner for the San Francisco head job (he interviews with the 49ers in Cincinnati Sunday) and secondary coach Vance Joseph reportedly is going to the Dolphins as defensive coordinator and taking linebackers coach Matt Burke with him.
"I think this won't be the same squad next year," Iloka said. "The squad will still be good, but it won't be the same squad. As we know, a lot of coaches are leaving and you know that happens when you have success. There are a lot of free agents. Let's be realistic."
It's why this one especially hurt.
"I really wanted to make history for the organization, for our fans, and for ourselves," Iloka said. "Because everyone deserves it. (Bengals president) Mike Brown up top deserves it. This one hurts the most."