Playoff heartbreak and Bengals fandom has gone hand-in-hand for as long as the team has been in existence. Time after time, fans have gotten their hopes up, were dragged to the precipice of euphoria, only to be slapped in the face by disaster. Cincinnati Bengals playoff losses came to be expected, an inevitability.
“Montana! Touchdown! John Taylor!”
The Bengals 1988 season ended with a Super Bowl match-up with the San Francisco 49ers. That was really the start of it. Stanley Wilson got caught with cocaine before the game. Then, early on, Tim Krumrie, one of the defensive leaders, broke his ankle. Cornerback Lewis Billups dropped an interception in the fourth quarter, and then Joe Montana and John Taylor ripped out the hearts of every Cincinnatian.
There was no reason to think the Bengals blowout win over the Houston Oilers would be their last playoff victory for three decades when it happened. They waltzed over their divisional rival, then lost to the Raiders. In that game, running back Bo Jackson’s career was ended on a seemingly innocuous tackle. Cincinnati’s season ended and the “Curse of Bo Jackson” began.
“Carson Palmer is down!”
Don’t try to tell Bengals fans that they wouldn’t have beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers in January of 2006 if Carson Palmer didn’t have his knee shredded five minutes into the game. The hit from Kimo von Oelhoffen basically ended the game, and really, Palmer never was the same. Palmer led the Bengals to another playoff appearance a few seasons later, but the Jets handled them and the streak of playoff losses continued.
The 2011 NFL Draft re-vamped the team and led to immediate returns. The combination of quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver AJ Green led them back to the playoffs in 2011, but again and again, they couldn’t get over the hump. The Texans beat them twice. The Chargers got them in the 2014 playoffs. Then it was the Colts. The run culminated in January of 2016 against the hated Steelers.
There was just 1:36 seconds left on the clock, with Cincinnati leading by a single point when Vontaze Burfict intercepted Ben Roethlisberger near the 25 yard line of the Steelers. Bengals fandom erupted. This was it. Nearly 25 years of waiting was over. Then, the most unlikeliest of sequences in NFL playoff history unfolded.
“Here’s Hill. Ball is out!”
A play later, all of Cincinnati had the wind sucked from them. Running back Jeremy Hill was stripped of the ball and the Steelers were given new life. A first down would likely have ended it, but the curse had struck again. Bengals fans could only watch, knowing how it was going to end. It was inevitable.
With less than 20 seconds to go, Roethlisberger targeted receiver Antonio Brown over the middle. The throw fell incomplete, but Vontaze Burfict, moments ago a hero, became the villain. He was flagged for an illegal hit on Brown, which set up a long field goal attempt. Then, cornerback Adam Jones got a flag of his own, resulting in an easy game winner for Chris Boswell.
The silence resulting from the shocking conclusion could be felt across the entire state. To make matters worse, fans would have to think about the ending to this one for six years. That’s how long it would take to get another playoff shot.
The 2021 version of the Bengals felt different. Quarterback Joe Burrow and his “Baby Bengals” had the swagger of a team used to winning playoff games. When the playoff schedule was finalized, it was, inevitably, the Las Vegas Raiders standing on the opposite sideline. The Bengals would get a chance to exorcise their demons against the team that started the playoff losing streak 31 years prior.
“The season comes down to this. It is Carr, endzone. Intercepted! Germaine Pratt!”
On Saturday, January 15th, 2022, the Cincinnati Bengals rewarded all of the fans who stood by them through 31 years of heartbreak. Like Andy Dufresne, standing in the rain after escaping Shawshank State Penitentiary, Bengals fans felt the years of defeats wash away by tears of joy.
The Bengals move on in the playoffs, led by a second year quarterback who seemingly has icewater in his veins. He has the poise of a veteran and is surrounded by guys too young to know they’re supposed to lose in round one. They didn’t get the notice that Cincinnati folds in the playoffs.
“For the first time in 31 years, Cincinnati, your Bengals have won a playoff game!”
The crowd at Paul Brown Stadium was deafening. Fans in attendance and at home were crying, screaming, drinking, or some combination of the three. A playoff victory three decades in the making had finally happened. After the game, Burrow looked like it was no big deal. He’s on to next week.
The fans believe in Burrow, though. They’ve believed in him since before he was drafted. There was never any doubt he was going to end the playoff drought. Cincinnati Bengals playoff wins were coming. It was inevitable.