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Meltdown at Paul Brown Stadium leads to bitter end for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict caught the ball, fell to the ground and immediately got up and took off running, sprinting three-quarters of a football field and into the south end zone of Paul Brown Stadium.

A contentious, theatrical first-round playoff clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers was now in the Cincinnati Bengals' hands, and the ball remained in Burfict's as he raced through the tunnel and skidded to a stop just outside the home locker room, with teammates Adam (Pacman) Jones and Rey Maualuga right behind him.

The trio celebrated for a few seconds and then went back outside to share the moment with 63,257 elated and waterlogged fans. After 25 years without a playoff victory, and four consecutive first-round flameouts, the Bengals had finally -- at the expense of their hated rivals -- broken through.

And then, against all rationality, it all went terribly wrong.

The Meltdown at Paul Brown was surreal and salacious and spectacular, and it pushed the Bengals into a state of stunned devastation that persisted long into the rainy southern Ohio night.

"The worst ending ever," said Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati's 10th-year left tackle. "I mean ... you've got to control your emotions in that situation."

Oh no they didn't.

The Steelers' 18-16 victory, secured by Chris Boswell's 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining, left some Bengals players enraged and others dumbfounded; and it even left the immediate future of 13th-year coach Marvin Lewis, now 0-7 in the postseason, somewhat in doubt.

After all, Lewis' team squandered a sure victory not only because one player (running back Jeremy Hill) lost the football on an unconscionable fumble, but because two others -- Burfict and Jones -- lost their minds at the worst possible time. Fair or not, the glaring lack of discipline that resulted in consecutive 15-yard penalties against those two defenders to set up Boswell's kick reflect back on Lewis, leading to natural speculation by players and coaches inside the Cincinnati locker room that it might cost the coach his job.

"It sucks, man," summed up star wideout A.J. Green, who caught a dramatic, 25-yard touchdown pass from AJ McCarron with 1:50 remaining to complete a stirring fourth-quarter comeback and give the Bengals a 16-15 lead. "I thought the game was over. We just gave 'em a free 30 yards ... I wanted to get it for coach Lewis -- he's been here a long time with no playoff win. I wanted to get it for him and for the city."

Instead, the third-seeded Bengals choked away a celebration that would have been more raucous than any since their second and final AFC Championship Game victory in January of 1989. And they did it in a manner that will live in infamy for at least another quarter century, perhaps longer.

The collapse began on the first play after Burfict's interception: Running back Jeremy Hill took a handoff at the Pittsburgh 26, charged through a hole for a 6-yard gain and, as two Steelers were pushing him to the ground, coughed up the football. This was right up there with Roger Craig's fumble against the New York Giants in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, which cost the San Francisco 49ers a shot at a third consecutive Super Bowl victory.

In retrospect, the Bengals could have taken a knee three times -- forcing the Steelers to burn all of their timeouts -- and sent on Mike Nugent for what would likely have been a 45-yard field goal attempt. When I asked Lewis if he regretted not having done that at his postgame news conference, he replied, "No, I don't think we were necessarily in field-goal range there. You want to get the first down, and win the football game there by running the ball, and we gained six ... on first down. I'm not second-guessing that."

Even after Pittsburgh cornerback Ross Cockrell recovered Hill's fumble and was tackled at his own 9-yard line, a Steelers victory was still improbable: That's because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who'd been sidelined in favor of backup Landry Jones since sustaining what looked to be a debilitating injury to his throwing shoulder on a Burfict sack late in the third quarter, dramatically reentered the game with an arm that figured to be far from fully functional.

After converting a fourth-and-3 on a short throw that All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown turned into a 12-yard gain, Roethlisberger pushed Pittsburgh into Bengals territory. With 22 seconds remaining and no timeouts, the Steelers were still outside of Boswell's field-goal range, and they were contending with crowd noise, driving rain and a defense determined to close out the game.

Then, for the Bengals, the world turned cruel: Roethlisberger dropped back and threw deep across the middle to Brown, whose lunging attempt to catch it failed. However, Burfict, who was coming across the back of the play, appeared to clip the receiver with a forearm, and Brown went down to the turf with what looked to be a head injury.

The result was a 15-yard unnecessary-roughness penalty, one of seven personal fouls in the predictably physical and prickly game. One of those flags was incurred by a Pittsburgh assistant coach, Mike Munchak, for making contact with Bengals safety Reggie Nelson after a tackle on the Steelers' sidelines. And amazingly, Munchak wasn't the most glaringly out of control member of coach Mike Tomlin's staff.

As Burfict and other Bengals argued the call, Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter -- a star player for the team from 1999-2006 known for his emotionally charged intensity and brash boisterousness -- came onto the field, ostensibly to check on Brown. According to several Bengals, Porter began trash-talking Burfict and other Cincinnati players.

That set off Jones, the veteran Cincinnati cornerback who quietly enjoyed a standout season in his ninth NFL campaign. Jones has come a long way from his early years as the league's poster child for off-the-field misbehavior, but his incensed and vocal reaction to Porter's jawing earned the Bengals a second personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct, pushing Boswell's distance from a daunting 50 yards to a highly manageable 35.

Burfict took questions at his locker after the game, answering each one the same way: "I don't know." Jones, after a brief, profanity-laced rant, left the locker room after indicating he had nothing more to say. However, about 20 minutes later, he called me to explain his actions and to voice his frustration at what he believed was the officials' failure to control the game, especially by allowing Porter on the playing field.

"He ain't supposed to be on the (expletive) field!" Jones said. "He was talking all kinds of (expletive), yelling at (Burfict), saying, 'You a dirty son of a bitch ... Take your bitch ass out of here ...' So I turned to him and said, 'Why are you talking?' I didn't even touch him. And they threw a flag.

"How can they throw a flag on you for talking (expletive) to a coach? Especially to a (expletive) who ain't supposed to be on the field? It'd be different if I was gonna approach a (expletive) player. There's a big (expletive) difference. I mean, Mike Tomlin wasn't even on the field. Why the (expletive) is Joey Porter on the field, period?"

Jones also took issue with the call on Burfict, saying of Brown -- who the Steelers said after the game was in the league's concussion protocol -- "Man, that (expletive) was (expletive) acting. He flopped. He needs a (expletive) Academy Award for that performance."

I asked Jones if he blamed himself for drawing the pivotal penalty.

"Look," he said, "every play I had in between the lines was a good play."

Jones conceded, however, that many outsiders would blame Lewis for failing to control his team. And, truth be told, several players inside the Bengals' locker room -- none of whom wanted his name used, for obvious reasons -- felt that Lewis deserved the criticism, citing a season-long lack of discipline among some defensive players in games, practices and meetings.

"Eventually," one player said, "this (expletive) catches up to you."

Said another: "You put up with enough (expletive) for enough time, guys think they can continually do it."

Lewis, for his part, refused to rebuke Jones, saying, "I'm not going to single out our guys. We had enough chances to win the football game."

The immediate question, for the Bengals, is whether Lewis will have another chance to earn a long-awaited postseason victory in Cincinnati. Unlike the previous four defeats, this one can't be pinned on quarterback Andy Dalton, who missed the game with the broken thumb he suffered in Cincinnati's 33-20 defeat to the Steelers four weeks earlier.

"This locker room should feel a lot different right now," Dalton said after the game. "We won that game. And then we didn't."

On Sunday, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who helped take Dalton's game to another level (and got a decent amount of productivity out of McCarron) in 2015, had interviews scheduled at the Bengals' headquarters with the 49ers and Cleveland Browns for their vacant head coaching jobs.

Because Lewis lost again -- and because of the way Jones and others unraveled -- it's possible that Cincinnati owner Mike Brown would feel compelled to make a change, perhaps in an effort to try to avoid losing Jackson. However, Jackson is close with Lewis and might not be comfortable with such a scenario.

As the Steelers headed out of Cincinnati early Sunday morning, their road to the Super Bowl was far from paved with gold: Sixth-seeded Pittsburgh, which already lost running back LeVeon Bell to a season-ending injury (suffered in a 16-10 early-November defeat to -- guess who? -- the Bengals) and had to rely on its third- and fourth-string halfbacks Saturday night (though Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined to rush for 123 yards), could be without Roethlisberger and Brown when it faces the top-seeded Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High next Sunday.

The Bengals? Well, who knows where they'll go from here, and who'll help them try to get back in the ring to take another swing (metaphorically, we hope).

"It's tough," Green said. "It's tough to keep your emotions (in check) when you're playing your bitter rival ... when (their) coaches come out and get in your face. It's tough. People are gonna say what they want, but they're not on the field, so they don't know what's going on."

Whatever the circumstances, the critics will still charge that the Bengals -- especially under Lewis -- can't come through when the stakes are highest. There have been some gut-punch defeats during his tenure, including the 2005 first-round defeat to the Steelers in the same stadium in which Carson Palmer, then Cinci's franchise quarterback, tore three knee ligaments as he delivered his first and only pass of the game.

This one, however, likely eclipsed them all in terms of pain.

"It's the worst," Green said. "The worst ever."

It's the Meltdown at Paul Brown -- and it left a coach, a franchise and an entire football community smoldering in its ashes.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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