Cincinnati Bengals meltdown typifies Wild Card Weekend
Experienced teams triumph over hot-headed rivals on first weekend of the playoffs
The away teams made it a clean sweep of victories against the divisional champions on the NFL's Wild Card Weekend and the most dramatic victory came at Cincinnati, where the hapless Bengals lost their cool in the final seconds of a spiteful grudge match with the Pittsburgh Steelers to blow their chance of victory.
The Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings ran Pittsburgh and Cincinnati a close second, as the Seahawks came from 9-0 down to beat the Vikings thanks to a missed field goal from the Minnesota team in the final seconds. Elsewhere, the Kansas City Chiefs demolished the Houston Texans 30-0 and the Green Bay Packers mounted a comeback to beat the Washington Redskins 35-17.
It means that all four wild-card sides go into the divisional round, where they will face the top-seeded teams from the AFC and the NFC.
For Pittsburgh, that means a trip to Denver to face AFC top seeds the Broncos, but the build-up to that match may well be overshadowed by the fallout from their extraordinary and bad-tempered win over the Bengals.
The Steelers led 15-0 going into the final quarter, only for their misfiring rivals to get their game together and take a 16-15 lead. When the home side regained possession of the ball with less than two minutes remaining, it seemed as if Cincinnati were about to end their run of five straight play-off losses.
What happened next was described by ABC News as "The Meltdown". First, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball, although with Pittsburgh out of field-goal range, his team were still in control.
But tensions were running high after several confrontations during a match in which several players were hurt and even the coaches got involved in the hostilities.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam Jones lost their cool and coughed up personal foul penalties that allowed the Steelers to kick for goal with seconds left to win the match. All Bengals coach Marvin Lewis could do was watch his team "come unglued under pressure again".
That was not the end of it. There were arrests in the stands and incendiary social media posts from furious Bengals players, seething at refereeing decisions, in the aftermath of a match "littered with ugly hits, silly skirmishes and rowdy fans", said Les Carpenter of The Guardian.
It was "the worst of the NFL", he added. "Saturday should have been Cincinnati's night to shine with a stunning playoff comeback win. Instead it will be the franchise's worst moment."
CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, himself a former Bengal, described it as a "disgraceful performance", adding: "I'm embarrassed by the way this game ended and by the way these guys acted."
But Cincinnati's meltdown epitomised the weekend, according to Carpenter.
"If there is a takeaway from the first weekend of NFL playoffs it’s that experience matters," wrote The Guardian's journalist. "Green Bay know how to win games like Sunday’s, just as Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle do. All have quarterbacks familiar with post-season football and all won on the road this weekend. Even Seattle, who needed the miracle of Blair Walsh’s missed field goal to win in Minnesota, still tore through the fourth quarter with a practiced precision that only a Super Bowl team can have."