On Second Thought: Steelers vs Bengals, The Rubber Match

via Post-Gazette/ Lake Fong photo

by Ivan Cole

A special team

Those who have been paying attention to my thoughts about the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers know I stepped out on a limb and expressed an intuition I had that this might be a special campaign for this team.

As we awaited the beginning of the Wild Card game with Cincinnati, my companions were eagerly reminding me about this assertion. It was done in the spirit of those who were seeking some level of reassurance that everything would be okay, more specifically, that the Steelers would prevail. My response didn’t have a resonance of certainty about the outcome, and they didn’t like that.

It all centered on the ambiguity of the term ‘special’. The unspoken assumption was that the translation would be ‘Super Bowl run’, but I had never really been that explicit in statements on the matter. That seemed prudent as the season unfolded. How many times had it appeared this season that this team was on its way, only to have that possibility snatched away in some heart rending manner?

Sometimes the problems were self-inflicted; whether it was Josh Scobee’s missed field goals, Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions or a variety of blown opportunities too numerous to detail here. Other times the challenges came in the form of players being struck down in front of our eyes—Le’Veon Bell, Kelvin Beachum, Ben multiple times. And that’s the short list. This team lost six times, none of which came about because they were simply outclassed or beaten down by an opponent. Win or lose, the one constant is that the effort, with one notable exception, involved suffering of bodies, psyches (especially those of the fans), or both in order to complete the task.

And yet over the course of the regular season they managed to win ten times and made their way into the playoffs. Every time I was certain my original impression about this team was overly optimistic, that they were too flawed or snake-bitten to carry the label of ‘special’, they carried on.

On Saturday night in Cincinnati with 1:27 left to play it looked for all the world as if in their final, tortured performance, all the tragic elements were on display for the entire football-watching universe to see.

And then we were provided with the precise definition of ‘special’.

PaVaSteelers loves the Pittsburgh Steelers as much as anyone I know, but would never be mistaken for being particularly warm hearted and forgiving of its shortcomings and failures. So it is particularly significant that as we all sat in the giddy aura of this improbable victory, literally unable to leave for an hour afterward even though it was late, he turned to me and said that it really didn’t matter what happens next week in Denver. The season, in his view, was a success.

Homer compared it to December 23, 1972, the date of the Immaculate Reception. For those of us who are lucky enough to have experienced both events in real time, the comparison is apt. In each instance a Steelers team that everyone knew was dead arose (like Lazarus) and, using a term that seems particularly appropriate, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Perhaps that is too mild an analogy. Snatched, not from the jaws but the belly of defeat. In both cases it involved those who put forth extraordinary effort when all logic screamed they were beaten. In this case there was the additional support of the tragic pathologies of the Bengals. But that in no way should diminish the achievement.

We may not know or appreciate the significance of this for years, but let us begin by saying that, like the Immaculate Reception, this will be for all the participants, players and spectators alike, more than just winning a playoff game.

Tomlin and the coaches

If you are looking for clues, start with the Steelers’ head coach. If you haven’t seen Mike Tomlin’s post game remarks, please go to Steelers.com and do so. Pay less attention to the words said and more to the tone and demeanor. Perhaps the greatest of Tomlinisms are not his statements, but the attitude itself. For Tomlin himself it would seem that The Standard is to consistently treat victory and defeat as the imposters that they are. What I saw was a man who was emotionally spent and humbled by what he had just been a part of.

We have talked over the past two seasons of the contributions of Mike Munchak and Joey Porter. Amazingly, in this game they were participants in the outcome in ways that no could have imagined.


For the third time this season, Roethlisberger was carted off the field of play leaving viewers with the impression that he was likely done, not just for the game, but the season. The third time! And then, for the first time, he returned to the field. And finally, in a turn that seemed somehow more appropriate for something coming out of Hollywood rather than real life, he played when all seemed lost and willed his damaged body and team to victory.

This was as bad, or maybe worse than the scenario of the kid from Detroit (Jerome Bettis) returning to his hometown to win the Super Bowl in his final game. If you tried to shop that script to a producer you would have gotten kicked out the office. Get the hell out of here with that nonsense!

Part of the great drama of this was how it has put a spotlight on the relationship between Ben and Tomlin. Though Ben came into the league under Bill Cowher, nine of his twelve seasons has been in partnership with Tomlin. The story that both men related separately of the decision they arrived at to go in, the now or never moment, will tie the legacies of both men to the lore of the franchise, the city of Pittsburgh and the NFL.

We will remember the awful things said about Ben in the Cincinnati media in the days leading up to the game—a relatively small thing that might be an indicator of how seriously off course and dysfunctional the culture of this country has become at times. You have to wonder if, beyond the passions generated in the moment, this had anything to do with why fans felt it appropriate to hurl debris at Ben when he was being carted off the field earlier.

We will remember the tears in his eyes on the sidelines at the moment that Chris Boswell’s field goal attempt cleared the uprights. We will remember Tomlin escorting Ben protectively off the field after the post-game interview.

I am probably being overly optimistic in saying this, but it is hard to believe that Ben or Tomlin will be viewed in quite the same way after this.

Bryant and Shazier

Sometimes I believe that Homer missed his calling as a seer. Before the game he clearly stated that the fortunes of the team rested on the performances of Martavis Bryant and Ryan Shazier.

It is a testament to the incredible drama of this game that Bryant’s mind boggling touchdown reception isn’t completely head and shoulders above the other events of the evening. And it took some effort to recall a spectacular reverse run that he had earlier. When we were calling for Bryant to step up, I think what I had in mind was just for him to hang on to the ball. Now, even if his career stops dead in its tracks after this game, he has passed into legend.

Any more complaints about Shazier? If you want to talk negatives, he is the Steelers player most likely to have to pay a fine this week after his crown of the helmet hit on Bernard. He is also the principle reason his teammates aren’t cleaning out their lockers as I write this.

Toussaint and Todman

Their efforts will be buried under the spectacle in the perceptions of most, but Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman join the list of players which includes Alejandro Villanueva, Jesse James, DeAngelo Williams, Robert Golden and others who took on the mantle of “next man up” and delivered in a big way for this team.

Willie Colon II

That would be David DeCastro, who subjected Vontaze Burfict to the most humiliating thing you can do to a defensive player. He pancaked him near the Bengals goal line. And while it lacked the near pornographic imagery of Colon’s memorable embarrassment, it had the desired effect. Who knows? It might have been a factor in Burfict’s out of control and self-destructive behavior in the end.

Compassion for Cincinnati?

The team? The city? Yes, they deserve every bit of suffering that they are no doubt experiencing this day. But can I be so perverse to wish this upon anyone? James Farrior wrote a tweet that captured it well. These are people who fell victim as much to their own lack of class and pedigree as to anything.

A championship culture is more than just talent or intensity. What transpired at the end was not some sort of bizarre meltdown but, as PaVa put it, the accumulated karma of a group who, through the permissiveness of the league, was allowed to pursue a pattern of destructive behavior that resulted in disaster.

Burfict took out each of the Killer B’s in turn except for Martavis over the course of this season. It remains to be seen what the full extent of the damage he has done to the Steelers will be. But it will be much less than that which has inflicted upon the biggest ‘B’ of all; his own Bengals.

Pittsburgh’s impact

Whether the Steelers can overcome the damage incurred when they travel to Denver next week is unknown and less important in the overall scheme of things. What Homer and PaVa know, and I think many others reading this as well, is that this team went through a test, an initiation if you will, that will serve the players, organization and Steelers Nation in ways that are difficult to calculate this close to the event itself. This is a special moment whose dividends may be paid next week or next year, but they are definitely coming.

There will be stragglers that won’t realize this. I am sure somewhere in the Nation someone is making the case as to why this is proof positive that certain individuals or groups are failures. To which I will say that Burfict and Bengals thought they were smart all the way until the end as well.

We have been witness to something truly special—a special season regardless of what comes next.


  • Saturday night’s game was more than a test. It was a crucible.

    They never quit, and the bond between MT and Ben has become amazing.

    They seem to be sprinkled with magic dust, and one of Homer’s rules in Vegas is to NEVER bet against any team sprinkled with magic dust.

    But it provides more ammunition for the crazy world of Tomlin haters. Murch and Peezy’s scuffles will convince them further that Tomlin is a still lousy coach, and the only reason the team is winning is because he was forced to hire great assistant coaches who have all the good ideas and fire up the players.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, there are plenty who don’t want to give Tomlin any credit for the win. It is ridiculous, but just how it is. Though those folks exist in every fanbase. Heard a call here from a guy who didn’t care that Gruden made the choice of Cousins and guided the team to the playoffs…he didn’t like him and hoped he’d get fired.
      These fans are…off.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    I don’t know PaVaSteelers well enough to know if he is a wise man or a wise guy or maybe a bit of each but I think he is wise to consider this last season as a success. So many problems and challenges surmounted and overcome included the truly improbable (well improbable if it wasn’t the Cincy way to self destruct) victory on Saturday. Much like the loss to Tebow a few years ago, there really may not be be enough healthy players left on the roster to take out a tottering Denver team but this time this team has it’s arrow pointing up. If they do not make the SB this year, they will make it next. Ben’s sunset years may be very special.

    The immaculate reception is a nice benchmark to measure this team. Like that team the Steelers beat a team that had been picked by many to go to SB. I remember being cursed, twenty years after the fact, by Raiders fans who still believed their team was poised to defeat the Dolphins enroute to a SB victory. The modern Steelers snatched the victory from the jaws of defeat in the face of poor officiating and a merciless opponent.

    If this bruised and battered team manages to get past Denver then I think anything is possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bingo. The key issue this coming Sunday surely won’t be the amount of fight in the men. Rather, it will be the amount of men in the fight. Oh well, next man up!

      Liked by 1 person

  • Tomlin may have escorted Big Ben off the field, but I rather enjoyed seeing Harrison waiting to escort Tomlin off the field.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      It was a thing of beauty. I noticed the Bengals seemed intimidated by James but maybe even more so by big AV.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dejan K. says that Ben was the only Steeler left on the field, and when Tomlin discovered this he and Deebo RAN out to bring him safely to the locker room. When everyone else was on the bus, Given the antics of the crowd they weren’t taking any chances.


  • I believe we all had a conversation either last year or the year before when I asked what defines a successful season for you. My response was winning at least one playoff game. With everything that happened to this team this year, just making the playoffs (even with help needed) was a victory for me. Sending the Bungles home was icing on the cake. Anything more will just be cherry toppings.


    • I agree. This team had a lot of hopes in the pre-season, but with all of the adversity this year..I’m more than satisfied with the season.

      KC/New England is the most interesting game next week. The assumption is that the Brady/Belichick automaton will continue to roll but… KC looks really good. I’d love to see Pittsburgh get another crack at Kansas City; but I’m eyeing a Chiefs/Cardinals Super Bowl.


  • HawaiianSteeler86

    Martavis Bryant embraced the challenge from BB and delivered with an outstanding performance. Legendary? Of course! That catch in the end zone rivals Odell Beckham Jr’s.

    A special shout out to one outside linebacker coach who most assuredly pushed PacMan’s crazy button!

    Last but not least, Chris Boswell. Steadfast and Clutch!


    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      If I heard correctly, Beckham acknowledged the catch as being impressive. I can’t remember the wording but was respectful.


  • This one is for all the believers. It’s for those who refuse to say the sky is falling. It is for all who KNOW that character matters. A LOT. It’s for those who have stood for up for Coach T, who have known that BB is a special QB, who I wouldn’t trade for Rodgers Brady or anyone else. It’s for Next Man Up and Never Say Die.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I just read your article and let me just say that I think this is one of the best analysis pieces on the game that I have read, including my own.

    It was truly incredible. I thought we were done for, and honestly the Immaculate Reception analogy didn’t come back to me, but it is apt. Heck, I think in terms of in-game situations, this might have been a LESS probable than the Steelers faced vs. Oakland on the 23rd of December, six days before my 3rd month on this earth (not trying to make you “feel old” but just putting things in context.)

    Really, this was excellent, and I agree, this could be turn-key moment for this era of Steelers football.

    I too was taken a back by Tomlin after the game – plus, did you see Cam Thomas having to pull him back after the field goal went through.


  • One thing about championship teams is that they’re resilient. No matter what is thrown at them, no matter how deep the hole, they find a way to bounce back and overcome adversity. Nick Saban

    This is why you draft men of character because it serves a bigger purpose. Men who don’t quit on each other(Blount)or care only about themselves and say to hell with the team no matter the cost(Burfict, Jones). One man can make the difference in the fight and no one person is above the team. We have a team loaded with men of character and we will have a championship team this year even if we lose the next game. I am quite frankly sick of reading articles and bloggers who pile on the team when things are looking bad. How the Steelers are done, dead, or whatever you want to call it. How they should consider firing Tomlin ect…ect… Total BS. Yes you can write it or say it but it is shameful in my opinion. That’s why I have much respect for this site. You can be critical without disrespecting the men on the team or the organization. We ride with the Steelers and this year has been one hell of a ride.


  • As a stranger, as someone who grew up with soccer instead of football things, as a newcomer, as someone who doesn’t put a foot on North american soil but think that as soon as he can, it will occur in Pittsburgh, as a man who build his Black and Gold identity each day, but still so knows that Pittsburgh is a strange place… Even so, I’m was (and still do) so proud being a witness of this story written on Saturday night.
    Those stories, of those men (kids actually), the ‘next man up’ and ‘step up and play’ things, the suffering and the joy, the bravery, the will, that players brotherhood (a band of brothers), the Iron Man, the Bus, the Immaculate Reception, even the sandwiches from Primanti bros. for the Bills front office…
    All those things tell me I’m a Steeler Nation member.
    I choose the Steelers almost by chance. It could be any other team. But it doesn’t.
    And I love that.
    In this solemn act I am asking you (all of you), to be part of the Steeler Nation.


  • Pingback: 5 Smoldering Questions on the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wild Card Edition | Going Deep:

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