It was a few hours before kick-off at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati, and something is taking place that normally does not occur before an NFL game.
The players for both teams were warming up, but there are nine referees standing watch on the 50-yard line. They were there to ensure that players from the Pittsburgh Steelers and hometown Bengals would not fight each other before the game started.
The NFL warned the two teams that there would be no fighting before the game, knowing the history between the rivals, and they listened. However, during the contest, they picked up right where they left off from Week 14.
Bengals cornerback Reggie Nelson was on the Steelers’ sideline after pushing Jordan Todman out of bounds. Mike Munchak, the Steelers offensive line coach, grabbed Nelson by the arm and then his hair. The two had to be separated. That theme would continue throughout the evening.
As the game moved along, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict began to take center stage, and NFL fans who know the history between these two teams were not surprised at all by that. Burfict was the original source of the hatred—he tried to injure Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during their Week 14 meeting. He admitted to trying to hurt Big Ben with a low hit and was fined nearly $70,000 for it. Burfict also ended Steelers superstar running back Le’Veon Bell’s season with a Week 8 tackle.
Well, Burfict was up to his dirty ol’ tricks again on Saturday.
It did not seem like it was going to happen initially, but the Bengals were set up to win a playoff game for the first time since Jan. 6,1991, ending the longest drought of its kind in the NFL. When Burfict picked off backup quarterback Landry Jones with under two minutes to play, the game looked to be finished with the usual bad guy, Burfict, as the hero. After the interception, which he baited Jones into throwing, the former Pro Bowler ran down the entire field and into the tunnel holding the football. He thought the game was over, and many fans at home probably agreed.
With 1:23 left, an injured Roethlisberger returned. His team miraculously got the ball back after Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbled. With 22 seconds left, Roethlisberger threw the ball over the middle looking for star wideout Antonio Brown. It was too high and Brown missed it.
To add injury to insult, Brown was knocked unconscious after getting nailed by Burfict, who had plenty of time to pull up. Two 15- yard penalties later, Pittsburgh hit a chip shot field goal to win, 18- 16.
The drought lives on.
The man who looked like he was going to be the hero became the goat in a matter of minutes. Burfict was suspended for three games next season for the hit and will likely appeal it.
They say you can’t teach height and certain skills to professional athletes. Discipline is one thing many believe you can teach. It clearly has not helped Burfict.
Even when Burfict played for the Sun Devils at Arizona State, he was known for his vicious hits on players. Clearly, he has not learned his lesson, and it cost his team a chance at an NFL title.
Did the more talented team win on Saturday? No. But did the better overall team win? Yes. The Steelers kept their composure and stayed mentally tough when it mattered most, and now they move on to face the Denver Broncos. Ironically, though, Burfict’s dirty hits on key Steelers players all season might be the difference between Pittsburgh losing its next game and possibly being a team that challenges for the Super Bowl.
This was a shocking ending to a football game. But when you hear that Burfict was behind his team’s self-destruction, are you surprised? If you are, I suggest you go through the concussion protocol.
Burfict might have gotten a piece of you.
Sean Saint Jacques is a journalism major from Bloomingdale, N.J. He can be reached at sean.saint- jacques@ student.shu.edu.