The Cincinnati Bengals were beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, and were en route to a victory. Then, a pair of needless penalties doomed them. First, linebacker Vontaze Burfict was flagged for hitting Antonio Brown with this shoulder-to-helmet hit:
It was a pretty textbook call. Burfict's hit was late and aimed at the head of a defenseless receiver. And it was dangerous: Brown has a concussion.
Burfict has a history of picking up personal fouls on dangerous hits. It extends all the way back to his days at Arizona State, where Burfict had 22 personal fouls, 16 in his last 26 games. He was benched at one point for picking up too many personal fouls, even though he was clearly ASU's top player.
It extended into his NFL career, when Burfict led the league in unnecessary roughness penalties, with six in his rookie season. He was fined $31,000 for dirty plays just three weeks into his career. He got caught twisting Cam Newton and Greg Olsen's ankles in his second year.
This year, he was second in the league in unnecessary roughness penalties and his problems perked up in the past month. In Week 14, Burfict delivered a late, low hit on Ben Roethlisberger and was fined $69,000. In Week 16, he was called for a late hit on the Broncos' first drive in overtime, pushing them 15 yards closer to the end zone and allowing them to hit a game-winning field goal.
Burfict's penalty pushed the Steelers to the 33-yard line, which would've set the Steelers up for a 50-yard field goal. But an additional penalty on Adam Jones made that a chip shot:
Burfict picked up a personal foul, pushing the Steelers to the 18-yard line, which set up the eventual game-winning field goal. To be fair, he was provoked by the illegal presence of Steelers coach Joey Porter on the field that probably should've resulted in an offsetting penalty.
The player formerly known as "Pacman" has long had issues controlling his anger. We're not just talking about his long list of off-field incidents, which often go well past the scope of "silly on-field moments." In September, Jones bashed Amari Cooper's head into a helmet after a play. In December, Jones posted an angry video before taking the field against the Steelers.
Many have criticized the Bengals for playing two players so unhinged that they could lose their cool in the pivotal moments of the playoff game. But that ignores the fact that the Bengals wouldn't have been on the verge of winning a playoff game with their backup quarterback if it wasn't for the play of Burfict and Jones.
Both Burfict's and Jones' personalities made them untouchable for most teams. Burfict spent most of his career as a top draft prospect, but his knack for personal fouls was the No. 1 weakness in any and all scouting reports on him. He could've been a first-round draft pick. Instead, he went undrafted, and the Bengals got him off the scrap heap.
Jones was cut by the Dallas Cowboys in 2009 after his one and only season with the team, a season shortened due to a suspension for yet another off-field incident. The CFL took a look at him, but passed. After sitting out the 2009 season, he was unwanted, and the Bengals got him off the scrap heap.
Both players turned out to be wonderful. Burfict was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013. Jones was an All-Pro last year. With a whole ton of salary cap space eaten up by Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, the Bengals needed to find good players for cheap. By turning to Burfict and Jones, they found two low-cost stars to power their defense.
But they were low-cost, not no cost. The cost is that sometimes, nights like Saturday happen.
Even when they don't do things wrong, they may cost the team because their reputation precedes them. For example, the Week 16 hit by Burfict that helped give the Broncos a game-winning drive wasn't particularly egregious, but Burfict felt the referees were targeting him.
The crew calling Bengals-Steelers were certainly well aware of Burfict's and Jones' behaviors, the intensity of the Bengals-Steelers rivalry and that they might need to call penalties to enforce order should either player get out of hand. They were going to call any dirty-looking hit by Burfict, and when he gave them one, there was no doubt it would get flagged.
It should be noted we're still not quite sure what specific thing Jones did Saturday night to draw a flag. We're still not sure why Jones was penalized and Porter, whose actions clearly broke an NFL rule, wasn't. But Jones' reputation precedes him, and it's not surprising refs were quick to throw a flag.
Burfict and Jones are football scorpions. Burfict's playing style is built on his vicious hitting capabilities. Jones feeds off the fire that's gotten him in trouble in the past to turn into a shutdown corner. The Bengals have put up with them because of how good they are, and it has benefited them.
But occasionally, they will sting. And you can never convince them not to.