CINCINNATI -- This was more than just another loss that extended the Cincinnati Bengals' playoff drought to 25 years, including five consecutive first-round losses.
This one will linger with memories of personal fouls and a fumble serving as exclamation points as to how the Bengals imploded in an 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC wild-card thriller.
AJ McCarron, starting his fourth straight game in place of the injured Andy Dalton, hooked up with receiver A.J. Green on a 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter, and you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from a suffering fan base. In one instant, and with one catch of a wet football, the region finally felt as if it had something worth celebrating.
But then, a fumble from Jeremy Hill on an ensuing possession and a pair of personal foul penalties did the Bengals in, preventing what once appeared to be a certain win.
A hit by Vontaze Burfict on Antonio Brown , which drew a 15-yard penalty and put Brown in concussion protocol, sealed the Bengals' fate, as did a personal foul by Adam Jones that set up Chris Boswell's game-winning field goal.
What it means? Saturday's loss ended another Bengals season much sooner than they had anticipated. Once again, they head to the offseason with the same question looming: "What must they do to finally win a playoff game?"
What were they thinking? Without the benefit of knowing the Bengals' game plan ahead of time, it was interesting to see where they didn't much employ the offensive tactic they had so much success with last week. Jake Fisher, the rookie offensive tackle who was moved last week to H-back, did not line up at the position until 14:34 remained in the game. Primarily used on special teams, he first came in for two goal-line plays at the start of the fourth quarter. Used as a lead-blocking fullback, Fisher helped clear the way for Hill's 1-yard rushing touchdown that cut the Bengals' deficit to 15-7. The decision to wait until late to use Fisher in that capacity was noteworthy because the Bengals had so much success with him as an H-back and fullback in the season finale against the Ravens. On 18 rushes with Fisher blocking from behind the line of scrimmage in that game, the Bengals gained 108 yards and had a 38-yard touchdown run.
One reason to be excited: At halftime, ESPN Stats & Information's team passed along an interesting nugget. In the previous six playoff games Marvin Lewis had coached, his Bengals had been outscored 84-13 in the second half. In past years, the Bengals have had serious issues either closing out games or coming back from deficits in the final half. That statistic proved it. Against the Steelers, though, there was no semblance of quit. Credit a vicious hit on running back Giovani Bernard from Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier for waking up the Bengals. If there's anything to take from a game in which the Bengals played so poorly for nearly three quarters, it's the fact they continued to play, bucking a trend from past years.
One reason to panic: Just as the added emotion was a reason to be excited, too much of it hurt the Bengals on the Steelers' final drive. A couple of personal foul penalties put Pittsburgh in field goal range to negate what appeared to be a certain Bengals win. The penalties were charged to Burfict and Adam Jones, two players whose line-approaching play has caught the league's attention over the years.
Ouch: The biggest blow of the game came late in the third quarter when Bernard was knocked out of the game and put immediately under the concussion protocol. From the second quarter on, several key defenders couldn't stay off the trainer's table, too. Reggie Nelson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Domata Peko all suffered leg injuries in the final three quarters. Nelson's was presumably the most serious, since he never returned to action.
Game ball: McCarron, who had a difficult first half that included an untimely interception, earned the game ball for his late hookup with Green. The 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:50 left set up the Bengals for a win before personal foul penalties on the final Steelers drive ripped the game from Cincinnati.