When the Vontaze Burfict roller coaster got going, Bengals couldn't get off

CINCINNATI -- Rey Maualuga was clairvoyant.

But even he couldn't have predicted the wild emotional swings his teammate, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, would take the Cincinnati Bengals on in the final two minutes of Saturday's AFC wild-card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It was during the game's roller-coaster finish that Maualuga's words from three days earlier started ringing true.

"Sometimes things happen because we let our emotions get the best of us," Maualuga said. "But we need to think about the team and obviously not lose our composure, but at the same time not lose the thing that made us the linebacker that we are: playing physical."

Football, as you well know, is all about controlled physicality. But reckless, chaotic and uncontrolled physicality -- as the Bengals know all too well now -- leads to disaster.

With 1:36 remaining in the game, Burfict was the Bengals' hero. A minute later, he was their goat.

"To battle back the way we did and the circumstances of the game -- it seemed like every time we got the ball it was pouring rain, and it wasn't when they had it -- to being down 15, battling back from the mistakes and putting yourself in a position to win the game," Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron said, "it sucks."

McCarron had just thrown a 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green with 1:50 left in the game to cap a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback. With the Bengals leading 16-15, all their defense had to do was hold and get the ball back into the offense's hands to run out the clock.

A first-play interception by Burfict on the subsequent drive did just that, sending Paul Brown Stadium into a frenzy. Many in the near-capacity crowd thought that when Burfict masterfully baited Steelers quarterback Landry Jones into attempting a pass that Burfict ended up diving for and intercepting, the Bengals were about to win their first playoff game in 25 years.

"The stadium just erupted," McCarron said. "You could just tell they were in a whole other level, and it was just like, 'We finally did it. It's finally here.'"

After the interception, an overly jubilant Burfict ran with the football to the opposite end of the field, through the Bengals' tunnel and all the way up to the door of their locker room.

And then, the jubilation faded.

One play after Burfict's interception, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbled on a 6-yard gain when he was stripped by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. Burfict and the defense had to go back out on the field for one more series, and this time a banged-up Ben Roethlisberger -- who was knocked out of the game earlier by a Burfict sack -- came off the sideline to face them.

"Everyone has got to understand the discipline of winning the football game, and that's more important than anything else. It always has got to be No. 1," Bengals All-Pro offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

With 22 seconds left in the game, Burfict lacked discipline when he used his helmet and a shoulder to crash hard into Steelers receiver Antonio Brown after Brown was unable to catch a pass. Brown appeared concussed. A flag came out quickly. Cincinnati's onetime hero was penalized for unnecessary roughness.

"You can't have stupid penalties at times like that," injured Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Vontaze is obviously a great player for us, and he's done a lot of really good things. So I'm not saying he's hurting this team, but the penalties are."

Remember the post-whistle extracurriculars from the Dec. 13 meeting with the Steelers? The ones that cost Burfict nearly $70,000? Dalton apparently does.

Any other week, any other opponent, after any other game, Bengals fans might forgive Burfict. But many of them likely woke up feeling ill Sunday morning, still reeling from one of the most gutting losses they have ever experienced. Just after Burfict's foul and another from cornerback Adam Jones for unsportsmanlike conduct on the same play, the Steelers were given 30 yards off penalties, setting up a 35-yard chip shot of a field goal to win it, 18-16.

Maybe if there hadn't been a history here with Burfict's roller-coaster borderline play, Bengals fans could demonstrate the perspective of safety George Iloka and say, "That's not what lost us the game."

But the history is there. And Saturday's chapter will enhance the legacy of a player who is good enough to put his team in position to win and sometimes undisciplined enough to snatch that opportunity away.