Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bizarro World

“Yeah, like Bizarro Superman – Superman’s exact opposite, who lives in the backwards, Bizarro World. Up is down, down is up. He says “Hello” when he leaves, “Goodbye” when he arrives.”

Superman introduced it, Seinfeld talked about it, and on Sunday, the Bengals lived it…

Bizarro World.

You see, the Bengals don’t beat the Steelers, especially not in Cincinnati. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t happen. In fact, the past eight times the two teams have played in Cincy, it hasn’t happened – until now. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Bengals took care of Pittsburgh in the Queen City, beating the dreaded Steelers in front of our home crowd. And for the first time since God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Bengals did everything the exact opposite of how they usually do things. Because for once, everything went right. How bizarre.

Unfortunately, it didn’t start that way for Cincinnati on Sunday. Actually, it started the way it always seems to start when the Bengals play the Steelers, as the Black & Orange finished the 1st quarter with a vomit-inducing negative-10 yards from scrimmage. The offense looked atrocious, and the defense was hanging on for dear life. Cincy QB Carson Palmer was completely out of sync, overthrowing receivers and forcing balls into triple coverage. All I could do was roll my eyes, scratch my head, and mutter things under my breath like “Unbelievable” and “What the…?”. If it wasn’t for Pittsburgh’s inability to put the ball in the end zone and a Cincy field goal just before halftime, the Steelers’ 13-3 lead could have been a lot worse.

Things began to look a little better for the Bengals at the start of the second half, when cornerback Jonathon Joseph picked off Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger and returned the ball for a touchdown, bringing the score to 13-9. But nevertheless, even a sparkling moment like that one – which was a huge play at the time – wouldn’t be complete for Cincinnati without a sack of feces dropped on top. Following the defensive touchdown, with the team’s spirits high and the crowd going bonkers, Bengals long-snapper Brad St. Louis (whom I despise) snapped the ball into orbit, instead of into the holder’s hands. What could have been a huge play and only a field goal deficit had become a nice play with a bad ending and a weird, 4-point deficit. It’s just the way things always seem to work out for the Bengals. After a while, you come to expect it.

(Short tangent: It’s obvious how outspoken my hatred of Brad St. Louis is, because after he snapped the extra-point try like a drunken fool, I immediately received eight text messages – yeah eight – from eight different people, all commenting on how right I was and how they all agreed with me that he is completely worthless. The only silver-lining to this is getting to come up with eight different disparaging comments about the man to text back to my friends and family. But seriously, the man has one job (long-snapping) and he can’t go a single game without screwing up. Cut him loose. Please!!!)

The Steelers took advantage of St. Worthless crushing our dreams, driving down the field two possessions later and scoring, pushing their lead to 20-9 with only three minutes remaining in the third. Can the Bengals, who haven’t beaten the Steelers since the Stone Age, really come back from an 11-point deficit with a little over a quarter left to play? No. No chance. Not gonna happen. Start the buses, hit the showers, clear the field. Haven’t we learned anything from the past? The Bengals aren’t coming back, and we’ll all just have to deal with it.

But then, something happened. At a time when the old Bengals – the Bungals – would have laid down and died, this team didn’t. This team didn’t look beaten or dejected. This team didn’t curl up into the fetal position and let the mighty Steelers walk all over them yet again. Actually, this Bengals team started to fight back, to believe in each other. It’s like they were the exact opposite of every Bengals team from the past two decades. Somehow, they were different.

They ran a fake punt for a first down, something the old Bengals would have royally messed up had they tried it (which they wouldn’t have). The defense started to look mean, hungry even, getting after Roethlisberger and making tough hits. The offense even got in a groove, charging down the field with just under 13 minutes left in the game. Palmer to Caldwell, 14 yards. Palmer to Ochocinco, another 14 yards. Run by Cedric Benson, 8 yards. Palmer to Coles, 9 yards. And then…BOOM! Benson takes a carry off the left side for a 23 yard touchdown run. Wait, did that really happen? Did the Bengals just run for a 20+ yard TD…against the Steelers?!?! Yeah, something was definitely different.

Now down by only five (20-15) with just over nine minutes left, the Bengals needed to get a stop on defense and get the ball back. And they did. On a 3rd down and 6 at the Pittsburgh 37 yard line, the Bengals defensive line swarmed Roethlisberger like a group of fat men at a Dunkin’ Donuts, taking down the QB for a 5-yard sack. The old Bengals would have folded like a lawn chair, watching their hopes of victory fade away as the Steelers mowed down the field, eating up the clock until it struck zero. But not this time.

After a nice punt return to their own 29 yard line, Cincy was left with 5:14 on the clock to go 81 yards, erase a five-point deficit and possibly years of psychological damage. And with that, Carson Palmer and the offense started a drive that we could be talking about all year in Cincinnati.

Palmer went 3-3 passing for 31 yards, with Benson chipping in 11 yards on the ground to get the Bengals to the Pittsburgh 29 at the two-minute warning. Meanwhile, I was nervously pacing back and forth in my room, snapping my fingers and breathing heavily. After an 8 yard pass to Caldwell, the Bengals went for the endzone on a 3rd and 2 lob to Ochocinco. My heart stopped on a dime, but the pass landed incomplete. I let out a sigh, knowing that it was 4th and 2 with only a minute left. Who was I kidding? Why was I setting myself up for disappointment? Could the Bengals really convert a big 4th down, a mere 20 yards away from the endzone, with only a minute left? Really?

Yes. Quick pass from Palmer to Coles for 5 yards, first down, 48 seconds left. Now I’m shaking like a coke-addict, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. But I didn’t have time, because before I knew it, it was 4th down again, this time with 10 yards to go for a first down. I can’t take it. I’m about to go into cardiac arrest. I’m standing inches away from the screen, hands over my eyes, peering through the cracks of my fingers like a 7-year old watching the Blair Witch Project. They couldn’t possibly do it again. Not against Pittsburgh, not on 4th and 10. These are the plays that never, EVER go right for the Cincinnati Bengals. Ask anyone. An 87-yard tipped pass, caught and ran back for a game-winning touchdown against the Bengals in the waning seconds of a game is the type of thing that happens to us, but not this.

Wrong. Palmer maneuvered the pocket like a brain-surgeon maneuvers the skull, meticulously cutting his way into space, and hitting Brian Leonard with an eight-yard pass. And while I’m literally pulling my hair out and clutching my chest, Leonard tip-toes down the sideline, diving headfirst for the yard-marker, getting the first down by two feet. I was shocked. Couldn’t believe it. I was ashamed I had even questioned Palmer earlier in the game. I actually apologized to him out loud. Because now, with 18 seconds left, from the 4-yard line, it was only a matter of time. This game was as good as won for Cincinnati. They had already proved that they were different, that this wasn’t your older brother’s Bengals. Palmer, who was playing like a combination of Joe Naimath and Jesus, was going to lead them in for the score, and there was nothing the sad, stupid Steelers could do about it. Despite years of heartache and failure in moments exactly like this one, it was clearly evident that this was a whole new animal. Somehow I knew, everyone knew, the Bengals were going to win. Different? Different doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Palmer takes the snap…drops back to pass…looking right…back to the middle…cocks…throws….he’s got Caldwell…TOUCHDOWN!!!!!!!!

It was like poetry in the making. The Bengals, a perpetual doormat for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had defended their own turf. They fought back, after an abysmal first-half and an 11 point deficit, for the victory. They defeated the defending Super Bowl Champs. They stared the Football Gods straight in the face and openly defied them. The feeling was indescribable. Up was down, down was up. Just when they could have kissed their chances “goodbye”, they came right back and said “hello”. They did the exact opposite of what they always do. They did the impossible.

This was more than just a Week 3 victory. This was a comeback win against our arch rival, after years of standing in their shadow. This was a win for the city, just as much as it was for the team. It was a win for the countless number of fans that have sat by for years and wondered when the Bengals would man-up and fight back when they were pushed into a corner. This was a win that everyone was a part of, from the players and coaches on the field, to the 20-year-old jackass kid pacing in his dorm room, 200 miles away. It was backwards and beautiful, all at the same time.

And that’s the wonderful thing about football, about being a fan. Every Bengals fan out their felt like they were a part of that victory, like they somehow played a role in the win. When I changed into a different Bengals shirt after halftime (which I actually did), I felt like it made a difference. When I was jumping up and down, yelling at Carson Palmer to watch out for the weak-side pressure (which I actually did), I felt like he could hear me. When I went to Wal-Mart after the game, pointing and laughing at anyone wearing Steelers’ gear (which I also actually did…three times), I felt like everyone in the Cincinnati locker room was pointing and laughing right along with me. And when I hugged and high-fived random Bengals fans while screaming “Who-Dey” at the top of our lungs (which, yes, I actually did), they felt more like brothers than complete strangers (which they actually were).

Because it was more than just a win. It was a unique and exhilarating experience, an unanticipated and indescribable bond between a team and a fanbase. This team showed us something in one week that no Bengals team (including the ’05 Division Champs) has shown since the ‘80s: desire and perseverance. It was surprising. It was shocking. It was different. It was completely, utterly and unequivocally…bizarre.

But if Sunday was any indication, it could very well become the norm.

Thanks for reading

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