Moments of Heartbreak: Cincinnati Bengals – 2015 Wild Card Game

Who are the Cincinnati Bengals?

The Bengals were founded in 1966 as the final team in the American Football League (AFL) before the AFL-NFL merger. They were actually founded by Paul Brown, who was Cleveland’s head coach up until 1963, when he was let go. After he was let go, he had interest in starting up his own franchise in Ohio. He ended up going with Cincinnati and worked out a deal for a new stadium. 

The Bengals were born.

The Bengals are one of 13 teams left in the NFL that have not won a Super Bowl. They did win two AFC championships in 1981 and 1988, but lost both Super Bowls. However, on paper, the Bengals, have been one of the more successful teams of the last decade with 6 playoff appearances and 3 division championships. It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows though. The Bengals have had a tough time winning playoff games despite being a one of the better teams in the NFL. They have not won a playoff game since 1990, more than 25 years ago. The 2015 Cincinnati Bengals were looking to change that and were within minutes of doing so, which is this weeks topic of discussion.

The 2015 Season

In 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals had one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. Utilizing a running back by committee with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, the Bengals put up over 1500 rushing yards. Jeremy Hill also was tied for the most rushing touchdowns in the league. They also had a 1000 yard receiver in AJ Green, who was top 10 in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Let’s not forget Reggie Nelson, who lead the league in interceptions with 8. And last, but definitely not least, the Bengals had some of the best pass rushers in the league with All Pro Geno Atkins and Pro Bowler Carlos Dunlap. They were poised for success.

The Bengals had their best start in franchise history in 2015. They rattled off 8 straight wins to start the season 8-0, before losing to the Houston Texans in week 10. They finished the season with a 12-4 record, clinching a playoff spot for another franchise record 5th straight season. They also clinched their 4th AFC North division championship (9th division championship if you include their 5 AFC Central Championships). The AFC had a three way tie for the #1 and #2 seed but the Bengals did not hold the tie breaker, putting them in the wild card against their division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately, for the Bengals, the last time they faced the Steelers in week 14, starting quarterback Andy Dalton fractured his thumb on this throwing hand. He would be out for the remainder of the season.

The Wild Card Round

On January 9th, 2016 the 12-4 Bengals faced off against the 10-6 Steelers in the wild card round. Rookie quarterback A.J. McCarron would make his first career playoff start, stepping in for the injured Andy Dalton. McCarron had been a serviceable quarterback and was 2-1 for the Bengals as a starting quarterback. The Bengals and their fans were still confident that they could get a win at home. The Steelers would be playing without their star running back Leveon Bell, who went down half way through this season with a torn MCL.

This game was largely unexciting through the first 3 quarters. The Bengals were completely shutout through the first 3 quarters, which is not a good thing. However, the Steelers had not done much on to distance themselves either. The Steelers managed just 2 field goals in the 1st half. They added another field goal in the beginning of the 3rd quarter after McCarron was sacked and fumbled on their opening drive in Bengals territory. Ben Roethlisberger added a touchdown with a pass to Martavis Bryant from ten yards out but failed to get the two point conversion on another toss to Bryant. The 3rd quarter would come to a close with the Steelers up 15-0.

Down 15, points and a quarter to play, the Bengals were not out of this game. Right on cue, McCarron tried to hit AJ Green on a 42 yard pass that was flagged for defensive pass interference. Jeremy Hill would punch it in the endzone from there, putting the Bengals down just 8 with 14 minutes left to play. After stopping the Steelers on the their next drive, the Bengals would drive down and tack on 3 more with a 36 yard field goal from 36 yards out. 5:17 left in the 4th and down just 5, the tides had changed and the Bengals were taking control of this game.

That momentum carried on to the next drive where the Bengals shut down the Steelers offense and forced them to a quick 3 and out. After a 24 yard return from Adam Jones, the Bengals would find themselves on the Steelers 45 yard line with 3:28 left. Rookie QB A.J. McCarron calmly and cooly led the Bengals down the field with passes to Marvin Jones and Jeremy Hill. After the 2 minute warning, the Bengals found themselves on the Steelers 25 yard line. From there, McCarron would hit AJ Green on a beautiful pass for the go ahead touchdown.

The Bengals would not be able to complete the two point conversion, but momentum was fully on their side. This would be proven yet again on the Steelers ensuing drive. Backup quarterback Landry Jones was in for injured Ben Roethlisberger and with his first pass of the drive, Vontaze Burfict would pick him off. This was the Bengals game to win at this point.

1:36 was all that remained on the clock and the Bengals were already in Steelers territory. All the Bengals had to do was run out the clock and they would be moving on to the divisional round. This would be their first playoff win since 1991, when Boomer Esiason was their starting quarterback. Bengals fans were celebrating all throughout Ohio. Their time has finally come.

….then disaster struck.

What would happen next was probably one of the biggest meltdowns you’ll see in an NFL game. On the very first play, Jeremy Hill took the hand-off 6 yards before turning over the ball on a fumble. All the Bengals needed to do was hold on to the ball and run the clock out. They couldn’t even make it 1 play. Surely, this Bengals defense could hold the Steelers off like they had a majority of the night right? Roethlisberger, beat up shoulder and all, returned to the field with 1:23 left and all their timeouts. Big Ben managed to work the Steelers down to the Bengals 47 yard line with 22 second left. The Steelers had used all their timeouts at this point. The Bengals still had all the chances in the world to win this game at this point.

Well, the Bengals had other plans, more specifically Vontaze Burfict had other plans. On a pass intended for Antonio Brown, Burfict damn near decapitated Brown. This play incurred a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, moving the Steelers all the way down to the Bengals 32 yard line. They were just 49 yards out for a game winning field goal at this point. However, the Bengals weren’t done yet. Adam Jones was flagged right after Burfict for another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for an altercation with Steelers coach Joey Porter. This was a controversial call, as many wonder why Porter was even on the field to begin with. Regardless, the Steelers were given an additional 15 yards, putting them at the Bengals 17 yard line. The Steelers would go on to win this game 18-16 on a field goal with 18 seconds left, extending the Bengals playoff loss streak.

I want to thank the Bengals’s Subreddit for their help with this article. Here’s a few more moments of heartbreak Bear’s fans have experienced.

Reddit user Korexicanm – Jeremy Hill’s Fumble.

Reddit user burny – Every missed field goal in the 2016 season

the 2015 playoff disgrace.

2013 playoffs so bad Andy couldn’t even take a snap

2012 playoffs vs the Texans when Andy threw 3 interceptions

2005 playoffs when Palmer was sniped.

if I had to pick one, watching Kimo von Oelhoffen taking out Carson Palmer. you could hear the breath being taken out of PBS. I will never accept that 2005 just wasn’t our year, we were firing on all cylinders and had the steelers in our sights, and it all ended with a snap. unlike most of our heartbreak, it was the time we were not going to beat ourselves and I think everyone knew it. fuck the steelers.

also the tragic loss of Chris Henry, R.I.P.

Reddit user Grasshopper_512015 – Wild card game. Game started off boring as shit, then gio gets illegally knocked out and the stadium wants blood and is electric. We put together one of the best comebacks in history against the fucking steelers only to throw it all away. I was at that game, and I went from the happiest in my life to a mixture of the most pissed/upset/confused in my life.

Reddit user Marc_AFCNortherners – John Taylor’s catch when we were 34 seconds away from a Super Bowl win. It was like someone pulled my heart out of my chest and stepped on it.

Got to relive that pain when Carson’s knee got rolled up on one of the dirtiest plays ever in the 2006 wild card and then more anguish with Hill’s fumble and dirtbag Joey Porter baiting Jones in the infamous wild card meltdown.

Why do I keep coming back for more pain?

Reddit user JebusChrust – So many young fans here using recency as their judgment. Sure, Jeremy Hill’s fumble sucked. But we weren’t going to win the next game that we played, especially since Dalton wasn’t going to be back still. We weren’t even supposed to come close in that Steelers game.

The true answer is either the 49er’s 4th quarter comeback against us in the Super Bowl, or Carson Palmer’s knee being blown out. Since I wasn’t alive for the Super Bowl, I’m going with the latter. That was our Super Bowl contending team that was on fire and Carson had just thrown a bomb to Chris Henry. After Carson went down, the team deflated and lost hope. Rather than potentially win a Super Bowl, we lost to our dirty most hated division rival who went on to win the Super Bowl and Carson Palmer never really was the same.

Want to experience more heartbreak? Check out the past moments of heartbreak.

Atlanta Falcons – Super Bowl LI

Arizona Cardinals – Super Bowl XLIII

Baltimore Ravens – 2011 AFC Championship Game

Buffalo Bills – Music City Miracle

Carolina Panthers – Super Bowl 50

Chicago Bears – The Death of Walter Payton

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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