Last night the Cincinnati Bengals gave away a game they basically had won. After looking lost and overmatched for most of the contest, the team had fought back to take the lead against Pittsburgh, but a fumble and then two inexcusable penalties put the Steelers into position to kick the winning field goal.
This is an old story for the Bengals. For five straight years, and six years out of seven, they have put together lots of talent, done well in the regular season, and then laid an egg in the playoffs. The final score of last night’s loss was closer than some of them in that string of failure, but the result was the familiar one: when the chips were down, the Bengals somehow found a way to lose.
Cincinnati’s loss and running record of post-season collapse inevitably makes me think of Cleveland — because when you think of losing, you think of the Browns. And I wonder, which is worse: an organization so wildly inept that they have become an irrelevancy, or a team that has success in the regular season only to lose, again and again and again, in the playoffs? Would you rather have your team be a running joke for its absolute incompetence, or the object of scorn because it inevitably chokes in the playoffs?
If I had to choose, as a fan, I would go for the chokers rather than the bungling failures, because fans of the chokers could at least enjoy the regular season and dream of the day when their talented team finally makes it to the playoff mountaintop. But being fans of the chokers isn’t easy, either. (As an Ohio State fan who barely survived the Cooper era, I know this deep in my bones.) Each year you let yourself be convinced that this year’s team is different, and this is the year that the team will take that next step — and then you have your heart ripped out by turnovers and ridiculous penalties and find yourself once again knocked out in week one.
One last point: last night’s game is an example of how the NFL has become almost unwatchable. It was a dirty, penalty-filled affair between two teams that obviously hate each other’s guts and didn’t have the discipline to avoid the cheap shots. The key penalty that let the Steelers get into field goal range was an unforgivable head shot against a defenseless receiver that is a poster child example of why the NFL has a colossal concussion problem. NFL players are big and fast and amazing athletes, but the thuggish behavior is indefensible and just has to stop — it is ruining the game.