The Bengals' last postseason win came in January 1991, back when Boomer Esiason was the quarterback and Sam Wyche was the coach. And on Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium against hated rival Pittsburgh, Cincinnati was a minute and 36 seconds away from breaking a drought that has spanned four coaches and more losing seasons than anyone cared to remember.
And then the simmering pot boiled over.
The Bengals had just scored the go-ahead touchdown on an AJ McCarron-to-A.J. Green touchdown pass. A play later, an interception by Steelers quarterback Landry Jones (he was in for an injured-at-the-time Ben Roethlisberger) pretty much confirmed that the football gods had finally decided to give Cincy a break.
On the very next play, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbled, the Steelers recovered, and because this is the postseason and these are the Bengals, of course Roethlisberger and his injured right shoulder came back onto the field.
It was clear Big Ben couldn't throw the ball more than 10-15 yards, and he spent much of the next 55 seconds tossing screen passes and slants, working the ball to the Bengals' 47-yard line with 22 seconds to go.
And then things went completely sideways. And because this is the postseason and these are the Bengals ... well, you know.
Specifically: Roethlisberger tried to find Antonio Brown downfield on first down, but Vontaze Burfict was flagged for trying to decapitate Brown. It was a brutal hit in a game full of them, and that 15-yard penalty moved the ball to the Bengals' 32-yard-line. That would've been a 49-yard field goal for Steelers first-year kicker Chris Boswell. Certainly not a gimme.
But because this is the postseason and these are the Bengals, there's more: Cincinnati cornerback Adam Jones was flagged moments after Burfict for unsportsmanlike conduct. Fifteen more yards, the ball at the Bengals' 17-yard line, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sent Boswell out for the chip-shot 35-yarder.
He striped it.
Game over, and in the process, the Bengals suffer their worst loss ever.
1. People are blaming Marvin Lewis: Esiason, who played for the Bengals from 1984-1992 and started in Super Bowl XXIII, didn't mince words after Saturday's meltdown. And he wasn't alone.
This was a disgraceful performance by the Cincinnati Bengals. An ugly performance by one, Vontaze Burfict - @7BoomerEsiason— CBS Sports PR (@CBSSportsGang) January 10, 2016
I'm a former Bengal and I'm embarrassed by the way this game ended and by the way these guys acted on the field today. -- @7BoomerEsiason— CBS Sports PR (@CBSSportsGang) January 10, 2016
If Marvin Lewis can't control his players, maybe Marvin Lewis shouldn't be standing there on the sidelines coaching - @7BoomerEsiason— CBS Sports PR (@CBSSportsGang) January 10, 2016
That goes on the head coach in my opinion - @CowherCBS on Vontaze Burfict at the end of the game— CBS Sports PR (@CBSSportsGang) January 10, 2016
That is absolutely embarrassing and has no place in the league. It's just stupid. - @TonyGonzalez88 on end Pitt-Cincy game— CBS Sports PR (@CBSSportsGang) January 10, 2016
2. People are also wondering if Marvin Lewis should be fired: It's a fair question. Yes, the Bengals have been markedly better under Lewis, at least until they get to the playoffs. But that's sort of the point -- they get to the playoffs. But the team that was once known for taking chances on players with off-field issues -- but had since gotten away from that in recent years -- blew a postseason game in large part because Burfict appeared more interested in settling scores than helping his team win its biggest game in the past quarter-century.
And even if the Bengals had lost in less dramatic fashion Saturday, Lewis' job security might still be a topic; offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will interview for several head-coaching vacancies, as will defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Why not promote Lewis to a front-office job (it has been speculated in the past as a possibility) and hire Jackson or Guenther to replace him?
Whatever happens, this is one lingering concern ...
3. What should the Bengals do with Burfict? The former Arizona State player was considered a first-round pick heading into his senior season, but problems -- both on and off the field -- saw his draft stock take a nose dive to the point that 32 teams considered him undraftable. Lewis signed him as an undrafted free agent and Burfict flourished in Cincinnati. But playing the Steelers brings out the worst in him. Roethlisberger accused him of intentionally going low during their Week 14 matchup, and Burfict's hit on Brown on Saturday was much, much worse.
This is just brutal pic.twitter.com/hBsIAJIBwO— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 10, 2016
For what it's worth, Lewis seemed to support Burfict after the game.
"He's trying to go over and defend the play," Lewis told reporters. "There's a lot of balls out there, plays today, calls went different ways. ... [The officials] deemed that to be a hit to the head, and others not today."
So do the Bengals move forward with Burfict, an obviously talented player who can't seem to get out of his own way? Lewis, other coaches and teammates spent much of the evening trying to keep the linebacker from exploding, and they were successful for about 58 minutes. (Then, well, you know.)
Or do the Bengals cut bait and move on? Because for as good as Burfict is, they can win without him; they did it earlier this season, and they can do it in 2016 too.
4. Of course, this never happens if Hill doesn't fumble: Think about that for a second. This all started because Hill couldn't hold onto the football with less than 90 seconds to go, leading 16-15, and the ball deep in Steelers territory. But that turnover started a chain of events that ultimately led to Boswell kicking a 35-yard field goal to give the Steelers the win. Again.
"Jeremy knows he fumbled the football," Lewis said afterward. "Don't have to say anything to him. He's as disappointed as everyone else is.
"I don't think we were necessarily in field-goal range there. You wanna get the first down and win the football game right there by running the ball. We gained 6-7 yards on first down, so I'm not second-guessing that.
"I'm not going to single out our guys," the coach continued. "We had enough chances to win the game."
5. Next up ... The Bengals are headed home, obviously, but the Steelers will face the Broncos in Denver next Sunday. Pittsburgh defeated Denver three weeks ago in a game at Heinz Field that ended with the Steelers scoring 27 consecutive points.
Elsewhere around the league: The Chiefs will face the Patriots (remember, Kansas City demolished New England early in the 2014 season to the point where Bill Belichick was answering questions about whether Tom Brady was still the starter). You can check out the rest of the AFC bracket below: