But that’s when the Bengals reverted to being the playoff Bengals, the team that finds ways to lose, a version of the Bungles from the days before Lewis’s arrival as their coach.
Tailback Jeremy Hill lost a fumble. The Cincinnati defense allowed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, back in the game for Jones but unable to throw the football with much authority because of an injury to his right shoulder suffered on a sack by Burfict at the end of the third quarter, to maneuver Pittsburgh into position for a game-winning field goal. Two 15-yard penalties on Burfict and cornerback Adam Jones following an incompletion to wide receiver Antonio Brown contributed to that.
The 35-yard kick by the Steelers’ Chris Boswell gave Pittsburgh an 18-16 triumph that dropped the Bengals’ postseason record under Lewis to 0-7. That record, plus the undisciplined manner in which the Bengals lost the game, prompted immediate speculation the owner Mike Brown will consider firing Lewis.
That shouldn’t happen. Clearly Lewis’s playoff record is disappointing. He has lost postseason games with Carson Palmer at quarterback, with Andy Dalton at quarterback, and now with McCarron at quarterback. And yes, the manner in which the Bengals lost this game was troubling. The meltdowns by Burfict, who delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Brown, and Jones, who pushed Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter, were inexcusable.
But coaches as good as Lewis don’t come along all the time. The fact that the Bengals have been in the playoffs often enough to suffer seven postseason defeats speaks to his ability. He does more with fewer resources than most NFL teams provide their coaches. The Bengals did not win nearly as consistently before he arrived. They would not win nearly as consistently after he exits if they choose to get rid of him.
Things very well could have gone differently this time if Dalton had not suffered a fractured thumb on his throwing hand late in the regular season, sidelining him for this game. McCarron led the fourth-quarter comeback Saturday. But he and the Cincinnati offense did next to nothing before that.
Lewis was questioned after the game about choosing to hand the ball to Hill following Burfict’s interception rather than ordering a series of kneel-downs, forcing the Steelers to use their timeouts and kicking a field goal. But the game was not over at that point. A field goal would have given the Bengals a four-point lead and the Steelers still would have had a chance to win. Hill simply cannot fumble in that situation.
And Burfict and Jones cannot do what they did. Burfict’s hit on Brown was both unnecessary and blatantly illegal. Jones’s shove of Porter was ridiculously ill-advised.
The Bengals were unhappy afterward about the calls. Jones posted a profanity-laced tirade on Instagram. Burfict directed a series of expletives at reporters in the postgame locker room. Burfict said Jones’s shove of Porter was prompted by Porter cursing at Bengals players.
The Bengals, to a degree, have a point. What was Porter doing on the field? Brown was hurt and play was stopped. But if Porter was on the field at all, it should have been out of concern for Brown; it should not have been to have any interaction whatsoever with Cincinnati’s players. He probably shouldn’t have been on the field at all.
But that didn’t mean Jones had to push him. And there was no excuse for Burfict’s hit on Brown. The officiating crew Saturday made inconsistent rulings all night when it came to illegal-hits calls, and the Bengals were upset by a helmet-to-helmet hit on running back Giovanni Bernard by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier that was not penalized. The officials ruled that Bernard had established himself as a runner so Shazier’s helmet-to-helmet hit was legal, and awarded possession to Pittsburgh via an instant-replay review of a fumble by Bernard.
Burfict’s hit on Brown was egregious, however.
Is Lewis to blame for the actions of Burfict and Jones during and after the game? To a degree, yes. He is the coach and everything that happens, happens on his watch. But the simple solution here is to get rid of the offending players, not the coach who has led the team to such regular season success.
Lewis deserves at least one more chance with a healthy Dalton at quarterback.