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Column: Echoes of the past in Bengals opener

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It was all but assured. An Evan McPherson field goal was as close as it came to a sure thing in 2021. He led the league with nine field goals over 50 yards. He did not miss a field goal during the Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff run that ended in the Super Bowl (tying legend Adam Vinatieri for the most field goals in the playoffs without a miss). By the end of his rookie season, McPherson had already established himself as one of the best kickers in the league.

It seemed as if things would pick back up where they left off this year for McPherson. In a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals, he kicked two field goals over 55 yards. In the home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, he hit a 59-yard field goal in the first quarter. With two seconds left on the clock and the score tied, all McPherson had to do was chip in an extra point to end Week 1 for the Bengals with a win over the Steelers.

But as fate would have it, Bengals veteran long snapper Clark Harris was out due to injury. Backup tight end Mitchell Wilcox was called on to fill in. Rather than receiving Harris’ crisp, sharp, long snap, Bengals veteran punter and field goal holder Kevin Huber received a lingering, floating snap that gave Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick the extra step that he needed. Fitzpatrick blocked the extra point and sent the game into overtime.

In the overtime period, the Bengals again seemed to have victory all but assured. McPherson lined up for a 29-yard potential game-winning field goal. But the snap was high and Huber, the holder, did not get the laces of the football turned the usual way (facing out) for McPherson. The kick veered wide to the left, keeping the Steelers alive.

With five seconds left in overtime, it was Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell’s turn to attempt to end the game with a walk-off. Boswell, who had earlier doinked a 55-yard field goal attempt off the left upright, redeemed himself with a 53-yard field goal to hand the Bengals their first loss of the season. With the win, the Steelers ended a three-game losing streak against the Bengals (which included a 41-10 blowout in their previous meeting).

It was a tough loss for Bengals fans. Prior to last year, except for during the 1980s, the Steelers typically had the upper hand over the Bengals. Overall, the Steelers have 68 wins and 38 losses against the Bengals, including playoff wins both times they have met Cincinnati in the postseason. The Steelers have six Super Bowl championships, tied with the New England Patriots for the most ever. The Bengals have been to the Super Bowl three times and have never won.

Last year was the first time the Bengals swept the Steelers since 2009. Coming off of an AFC championship and with longtime nemesis Ben Roethlisberger now retired, the Bengals seemed poised for victory. Instead, it was back to the future with a loss to the Steelers.

The Bengals’ loss was one in which there were echoes from the past, both positive and negative, from the long history of punishing loses to the Steelers to the more recent contests in which Cincinnati has prevailed.

In the 1990s, the Bengals became known as the “Bungles” for their hapless play. They had the worst record in the league for the decade and began a playoff win drought that lasted more than three decades.

The game last Sunday was in some ways familiar to Bengals fans. A blocked extra point attempt. Seven sacks and five turnovers, including four interceptions, one of which was a pick-six. A missed (what would have been a game-winning) 29-yard field goal. The Bengals were back to being the Bungles, it in some ways seemed.

But the game in several ways was an extension of last year’s improved season. Despite the turnover woes, the Bengals hung in the game, coming back from a 14-point deficit in the second quarter to tie the score with seconds left (last season, Cincinnati rallied from being down by 14 points to win three times). The Bengals far exceeded the Steelers in time of possession (43:43 to 26:17) and shut down Pittsburgh’s running game. Though Burrow threw four interceptions, he threw for 338 yards, completing 10 passes to his former LSU teammate and Offensive Rookie of the Year for 2021, Ja’Marr Chase. McPherson missed a point-after attempt and field goal, but the misses were at least in part due to the absence, as a result of injury, of the usual long snapper. In earlier times, the Steelers would have buried the Bengals as a result of their mistakes. This time, the Bengals were able to battle back, showing that they are not still the irredeemable “Bungles” of the 1990s.

But they also showed that some of the problems from last season have not yet been corrected.

The Bengals’ biggest weakness in 2021 was the offensive line. Burrow was sacked a league-leading 70 times last year. He was sacked nine times alone in the divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.

Cincinnati made moves in the offseason to shore up the offensive line, acquiring Alex Cappa from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ted Karras from the New England Patriots and La’el Collins from the Dallas Cowboys, while drafting Cordell Volson from North Dakota State University. Though this should result in improvement, the newly constituted line needs time to coalesce. The game last Sunday was the first time the new line saw full speed action, as CBS analyst Charles Davis pointed out.

Burrow had an excellent season last year. But the interceptions in Week 1 were reminiscent of the Bengals’ Week 2 loss in 2021 to the Chicago Bears in which he threw three interceptions on three consecutive pass attempts. Burrow is still young. He takes risks and at times makes high-stakes mistakes. But he has shown an ability to play with confidence and bounce back after things have not gone his way.

If Week 1 demonstrated anything to the Bengals and their fans it is that nothing is assured. Not a 29-yard field goal, not even an extra point after a touchdown. Certainly not another AFC championship and return to the Super Bowl.

The long offseason is now over. It’s time to see if the Bengals are up to the task of escaping history and establishing a new identity as a team that is resilient and able to overcome setbacks when, like a blocked extra point that would have given them the win, things do not go as one might assume.

David Dreyer is a political science professor (and avid sports fan) at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

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