It was the best of games. It was the worst of games.
Saturday night’s Pittsburgh-Cincinnati wildcard matchup played not merely as a tale of two cities but as the story of the most memorable and most forgettable football game fans ever saw. The Bengals mounted a gutsy comeback and choked all in the same game. Vontaze Burfict was the hero. Vontaze Burfict was the goat. A.J. Green played on the back of a milk carton before playing in the back of the end zone. The referees let boys be boys until they didn’t by letting themselves influence the outcome. A turnover doomed the Steelers to defeat before one doomed their opponents. Pittsburgh won the game if you scored on points; Cincinnati, if you scored on damage. Some cheered the contest as an old-school atavism recalling smashmouth football of the fifties and before. Others derided it as new school whining and poor sportsmanship. They were both right.
The ugly weather offered foreshadowing. The clouds did not instill a sense of foreboding. Their violent and merciless onslaught announced that ominous had arrived. The scary meteorological phenomenon, like full moons and eclipses, unleashed scary human behavior.
The image of debris raining down upon the turf or water bottles flying at an injured Ben Roethlisberger carted off the field only begins to tell the story. Police arrested a Bengals fan for urinating on an unconsenting adult seated a row down, a Steelers fan for launching a beer bottle at a fan’s face, and three additional “men” with allegiances to both teams for punching women, who, unlike Antonio Brown and Gio Bernard, went to the game without remembering to put on a helmet. Did the barbarism on the field infect the stands or vice versa? If only Sam Wyche had been around to remind the rowdies that they “don’t live in Cleveland.”
Saturday night told a tale of two cities but the game receives its most clear telling as the story of one man. Vontaze Burfict played with an intensity ultimately too big for his big body to contain. He won the game twice for Cincinnati by making Roethlisberger’s chest briefly look like a topographical map of Pittsburgh and by intercepting a pass by Big Ben’s replacement that effectively sealed the victory. Then he lost the game through a boneheaded, unnecessary hit to Antonio Brown’s head. Vince Lombardi, Sam Huff, and others dubbed football “controlled violence.” Burfict understands the violence part.
What’s so remarkable about the game is what’s not remarked upon. Nine NFL officials, perhaps trying out for offseason jobs with the WWE, dramatically lined midfield during pregame warmups to ensure no violent collisions between the combatants before the game clock began. Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak, a Steelers assistant, pushed a Bengals player and pulled his hair, and fellow Steelers assistant Joey Porter goaded Adam “Pacman” Jones into a penalty after invading the field and jawing with players. Before Burfict went head hunting on Antonio Brown, Ryan Shazier relieved Gio Bernard of consciousness on a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit. Pittsburgh Steelers William Gay and Bud Dupree received a flag for an endzone celebration on a touchdown subsequently called back and Burfict briefly looked like he pulled a Jim Marshall by running to the wrong endzone. No flags even flew when Steelers offensive lineman David DeCastro, who now claims Vontaze Burfict spit on him, attempted to block the downed Bengals defender through the turf into the domain of the Morlocks.
These and other such occurrences cause the Eloi to condemn football. But Saturday night displayed football’s beauty alongside its brutality. Martavis Bryant made the greatest catch you’ve ever seen if you’ve never seen Odell Beckham Jr. A.J. Green enjoyed a national coming out party when crunch time arrived. Ben Roethlisberger impersonated Willis Reed.
It was awful and amazing, a sixty-minute roller-coaster ride that saved the most frenzied chaos for the end. And like so many roller coasters, it left passengers thrilled yet ready to throw up.