CINCINNATI — Jeremy Hill got stripped of the ball. Vontaze Burfict led with his shoulder head-high. Adam "Pacman" Jones lost his cool. In a matter of seconds, Cincinnati let it all slip away.
The Bengals’ latest playoff meltdown was one for the books, in many ways the worst of them all. And it will shake the franchise for a long time.
Hill fumbled away a chance to close out the game, and personal fouls on Burfict and Jones moved the Steelers in range for the winning field goal on Saturday night. Chris Boswell’s 35-yard kick with 14 seconds left gave Pittsburgh an 18-16 victory — another blow-to-the-gut moment to the Bengals’ horrid playoff history.
"Got back and went ahead, and then we destructed on ourselves, offence and defence together," coach Marvin Lewis said. "That’s disappointing."
And so familiar.
The Bengals rallied from a 15-0 deficit in the fourth quarter behind AJ McCarron, who threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green for a 16-15 lead with only 1:50 to go. The Bengals appeared to seal it when a diving Burfict picked off Landry Jones' pass with 1:36 left. Burfict celebrated the play by running all the way to the other end of the field and into the tunnel -- with the ball -- followed closely by an entourage of teammates.
But, then, the self-destruction began.
"We have to be smart in situations throughout the game and make smart decisions," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
Instead of protecting the ball at all costs, Hill got stripped by Ryan Shazier to give the Steelers one more chance. Hill lost his starting job temporarily this season because of fumbles. This one set up the ugly final sequence to Cincinnati's season.
"It's hard to put into words," said Hill, who failed to run for 100 yards in any game this season. "Words don't do anything at this point. It's on me. I take full blame for it. It's very unfortunate."
Ben Roethlisberger returned from a shoulder injury to lead the winning drive, with personal fouls on Burfict and Jones moving them within range.
Burfict lowered his shoulder and hit receiver Antonio Brown in the head after an incompletion, drawing a penalty. While the Steelers were on the field checking on the injured receiver, Jones got into it with Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter and drew another flag, making it 30 yards in penalties.
Shortly after the game ended, Jones went on a profane rant against the official on Instagram, which was soon deleted. He also tweeted his disagreement with his penalty, saying a Steelers coach came on the field to trash talk and it was "Not even a head coach." Burfict had no explanation for his penalty, repeatedly saying, "I don't know."
Boswell's fourth field goal extended Cincinnati's playoff drought to 25 years and counting, the sixth-longest in NFL history.
Lewis fell to 0-7 in the playoffs, moving ahead of Jim Mora for most such losses to start an NFL coaching career. And the Bengals (12-5) now have lost an opening-round game for five consecutive seasons -- no other team has done it more than three times in a row.
McCarron filled in for the injured Andy Dalton and showed his big-game mettle against long odds. No NFL quarterback with so little starting experience had won a playoff game since 1979, when Gifford Nielsen led the Oilers over the Charger. Dan Fouts threw five interceptions to make that one possible.
"We were so close to giving this city what they deserved -- to do it against a team like Pittsburgh -- and for it not to happen ... it's bad," McCarron said.
An injury gave the Bengals their opening. With the Steelers up 15-0 in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger hurt his right shoulder when Burfict sacked him, forcing him to the locker room. McCarron's clutch TD pass to Green got the Bengals to the verge of their breakthrough.
But Big Ben returned to lead the final nine-play, 74-yard drive, converting a third down and a fourth-down play to keep it going.
It ended with Burfict jawing at Lewis on the sideline and players staring in disbelief. The Steelers ran right to their locker room when time ran out, getting pelted with cans by angry fans. The Bengals headed into an off-season of change, with nearly half the starting lineup in the final contract year.
Lewis has one more year on his deal, but will come under intense scrutiny after his team self-destructed. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap tweeted: "Bengals beat Bengals ... No 1 to blame but ourselves."
Heading into the game, Lewis had joked that an "exorcism" was needed for the team's playoff history.