Another Bengals season goes up in smoke

CINCINNATI (AP) – Another playoff meltdown for the Bengals. And in many ways, this one was the worst of all.

Cincinnati had a pair of personal fouls that moved Pittsburgh into position for Chris Boswell’s 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds to play Saturday night and an 18-16 victory, adding another blow-to-the-gut moment to the Bengals’ playoff history.

They 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.

It was so improbable. And what happened next was so familiar.

Playing on its home field, Cincinnati fumed and fussed and let it slip away.

After Vontaze Burfict picked off a pass that seemed to seal it, Jeremy Hill fumbled to give Pittsburgh (11-6) another chance. Ben Roethlisberger returned from a shoulder injury to lead the winning drive, with personal fouls on Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones moving them within range.

Boswell’s fourth field goal extended Cincinnati’s playoff drought to 25 years and counting, the sixth-longest in NFL history.

Coach Marvin Lewis fell to 0-7 in the playoffs, moving ahead of Jim Mora for the NFL record of futility. 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 showed his big-game mettle and nearly beat the longest 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.

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 ahead 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 offseason 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 this meltdown.

Shortly after the game ended, Jones 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.”

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.

Now what?

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