Looking back, Wildcard weekend in the NFL truly was wild.
Not only did every Wildcard team win, many won in unexpected ways. The most controversial of the four matchups was between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati on Saturday night. Several judgment calls throughout the game swayed momentum in favor of the Steelers, but they were also aided by the boneheaded play of a pair of Bengals defenders late in the contest.
After trailing Pittsburgh 15-0, Cincinnati mounted a sixteen point comeback in the final quarter, taking a one point lead with just 1:50 remaining.
Pittsburgh had time to respond, but Landry Jones was at the helm of their offense due to an injury on Ben Roethlisberger earlier in the contest. Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict sacked and injured Roethlisberger’s shoulder on the last play of the third quarter.
On Landry’s first throw after Cincinnati’s go-ahead score, Burfict would intercept the ball, seemingly ending Pittsburgh’s hopes of winning the game. After the play ended, Burfict sprinted across the field and down the tunnel towards his locker room in celebration, as if the game was over.
But the game was far from over.
Even though it did look like the Bengals were going to win their first playoff game since 1991, the Steelers still had all three of their timeouts, and a field goal would have only given the Bengals a 19-15 advantage. And, as it would turn out, Burfict’s early celebration would immediately come back to haunt his team and his city.
Bengals halfback Jeremy Hill would go on to fumble on the first play of the ensuing drive, reinvigorating the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger would be called in to lead his team on one last scoring drive, only needing a field goal to win the game. Big Ben got his team near midfield when a pair of foolish personal foul penalties by Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones on the same play would bring the Steelers closer to victory.
The Steelers made the kick and won the game, and while I acknowledge the Bengals did do everything they possibly could to hurt themselves in the final moments of this contest, they certainly weren’t the benefactor of the officiating in most of this game.
The Bengals were driving on Pittsburgh late in the third quarter while still trailing 15-0. On third and nine with 1:43 remaining in the quarter, A.J.McCarron found Giovanni Bernard on an underneath route near the line of scrimmage. Bernard caught the ball and began to turn up field, but was instantly buckled on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Ryan Shazier. The ball would come out and Bernard was initially ruled down by contact, but the play was reversed after a Steelers challenge.
Even though commentators and many other media outlets have suggested that Bernard was considered a runner at that time, and that Shazier’s hit wasn’t on a defenseless receiver, the NFL mandated in 2013 that no player can lead with the crown of their helmet on a tackle outside of the tackle box, known as spearing.
Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8. Initiating Contact With the Crown of the Helmet reads:
“It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside the tackle box (an area extending from tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the offensive team’s end line). Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul.”
If you watch the replay, it’s pretty evident what part of his body Shazier leads with on the tackle.
Bernard may be low to the ground, but only Shazier can control how he leads his tackle. I can promise you that there isn’t a football coach in America that advises players to lead any tackle with the crown of their helmet, let alone with their head down in the first place.
I am by no means a fan of the new rules that have watered down the sport for most of the last decade, but if you’re going to impose these new rules, at least enforce them – especially in a playoff game with plenty of implications. Shazier’s hit is a picture-perfect example of what the league is trying to eliminate. Yet, because of uncertainties, perhaps, amongst officials on if Bernard was a runner and whether or not that negated the spearing penalty, no flag was thrown. Sometimes it seems even NFL officials can’t distinguish between these rules any better than you or I.
So, what could have been a chip-shot field goal for the Bengals at the end of the quarter turned out to be a turnover, because no official on the field could find wrongdoing in Shazier’s illegal hit.
Additionally, I question what defensive assistant Joey Porter was doing on the field when Antonio Bryant was injured after the blatant cheap shot by Burfict late in the game. “Pacman” Jones certainly shouldn’t have shoved him (which is why the refs correctly threw a flag), but if you watch the replay, why is Porter walking up to a group of six Bengals players, several yards away from where Bryant is being attended to?
Porter is a former Steelers linebacker, and in reality, he knew exactly what he could invoke from the Bengals defenders if he pushed the right buttons. He likely started the squabble with his mouth, and because he wasn’t removed from the field by the officiating crew (despite being a defensive coach and not a member of the medical staff), Jones had plenty of time to lose his cool and further cost his team the game. That’s his bad, but Porter also didn’t belong on the field at this time.
I have no sympathy for the actions of Burfict or Jones late in this game (and after the game), or the fans who threw trash at Roethlisberger while he was being carted off the field. I do, however, have sympathy for the rest of the Bengals team and organization, who did everything they could for an entire season to bring a playoff victory back to their franchise. Ultimately, their efforts were squandered by questionable officiating and the uncontrollable play of their two biggest boneheads.