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Saunders: Steelers Embraced the Absurd, Found Something Worth Losing in Cincinnati




CINCINNATI — The Pittsburgh Steelers played in one of the most absurd NFL games you’ll see on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, twice escaping near sure defeat in order to win on a Chris Boswell field goal in the final second of overtime.

The Steelers dodged an ineffective offense and several major injuries throughout the game, needed to block one chip-shot kick and have Evan McPherson miss another to stay alive and get Boswell a second chance at glory after he uncharacteristically missed his first one.

The swings in momentum in the last two minutes of the game and overtime were incredible. The ESPN win probability chart doesn’t even do it justice, as it fails to include the swing in between JaMarr Chase’s last-second, game-tying touchdown and Minkah Fitzpatrick’s improbable extra point block.

Steelers Win Probability

What the win probability chart does correctly capture is that it looks like the EKG of someone that’s having a heart attack, and that’s about what the players involved described to the experience to be like.

“This was an outrageous game,” tackle Dan Moore Jr. said. :”The craziest game I’ve been a part of, for sure.”

“That was a crazy game,” wide receiver Diontae Johnson said. “It’s exciting to pull it off and get then W.”

It was more than just exciting. The Steelers were not exactly what you’d call good in all phases on Sunday. The offense struggled to do anything at all for most of the day. The defense was stellar, with five turnovers, but still had some unforced errors that kept things interesting down the stretch, including a personal foul on Fitzpatrick, who could have been the goat before he was the hero.

“I’ve been in some wild ones, and that was definitely up there,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think it means a lot. It just shows that we’re willing to work through the ups and downs, through the ebbs and flows of the game. I’m proud of the way that we handled it. We’ve just got to continue to play the way that we play.”

Consider the emotional toll that game took on your life as a fan of the team. Now consider the feelings of playing through it. Now consider the feelings of doing all that and losing. That’s how the Cincinnati Bengals feel.

An hour after the game, Joe Burrow was still sitting at his locker, fully dressed.

The Bengals will be OK. The reigning AFC champs have a ton of talent across the board and should be able to bounce back.

The Steelers are a lot more fragile creature right now. The rebuilding team is projected to finish a lot closer to .500 than an AFC title and might not get many chances at beating a top-flight AFC team. Losing that game to the Bengals would have felt like an enormous opportunity squandered.

“For us to get that win, first game of the season, division opponent … division games are always important,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said.

“When they were missing those field goals, it’s like damn, we don’t die,” Cam Heyward said. “By the time Bos went out for the last one, I was like we’ve gotta make this. We’ve been damn zombies the whole game. They’ve tried to put us out, tried to kill us. Just kept bouncing back.”

Cam may not be a big fan of the zombie movie genre, but they usually do die. He used a metaphor to the undead. Mike Tomlin chose to embrace a devil-may-care mindset coming into the game when he gifted his team black on black Nike Air Force 1s before the game, a shoe of someone with nothing left to lose.

That may have been true before the game, but during that game, they acquired some hope. The Steelers were 7.5-point underdogs. They weren’t even really supposed to give the Bengals a tough time. And if they can beat the Bengals, on a day when they didn’t even play all that well across all phases, then why not the Steelers?

That’s the significance of winning that game, not to mention of course, the crucial AFC North road victory for tie-breaking purposes.

Losing to the Bengals in normal fashion would not have ruined the Steelers’ season. Losing to the Bengals amidst all the absurdity of Sunday, after acquiring the knowledge that these Steelers can play with these Bengals and gaining that hope for what that means for this season would have been a body blow.

Tomlin recalled another such game, when the Steelers came into Cincinnati and beat the Bengals in the 2015 Wild Card round. In that absurd finish, the Bengals had the Steelers easily beaten before a fumble and two ill-timed penalties from Cincinnati let Boswell again be the one to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Those Bengals went 12-4 that year. They thought they could play with and beat the Steelers. Those teams, with Andy Dalton, Giovani Bernard, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict and Pac-Man Jones, never made it back to the playoffs. That was their one shot and they blew it and it’s hard to enumerate exactly how much that loss helped cause that future pain, but it was certainly a part of it.

A loss to the Bengals wouldn’t have been franchise-altering for the Steelers in that way. Most do not have those types of expectations for the team in 2022. But it would have dashed the hope that springs eternally on the first weekend of the fall more quickly than ever before.

These Steelers might not be that good, but they are tough, and they don’t quit and they made some of their own luck, and they can play with anyone in the NFL on any given Sunday.

The next step after acquiring that hope will be to keep it. There aren’t a lot more underdog stories on the near horizon. The New England Patriots might not have Mac Jones and didn’t appear to be doing much even with him. The Jacoby Brissett-led Cleveland Browns took all game to put away the Carolina Panthers. The New York Jets are, well, still the Jets, and might still be playing Joe Flacco in three weeks.

Those are now games the Steelers should be expected to win. There’s no more black Air Force 1s energy. The team now has something to lose. But that’s always the goal, to get there. Now they’ll have to keep it.

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