Thanks to Burfict's headhunting hit to the helmet of Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown — followed by an unsportsmanlike call on the Bengals after the play — the Steelers pulled off an 18-16 victory in a wild-card game, clinching with a 39-yard field goal by Chris Boswell.
The rain-soaked crowd, delirious just minutes earlier, watched in devastated disbelief. Orange crushed.
“It's disappointing,” said Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, who set an NFL record with his seventh consecutive postseason defeat. “Our guys fought their tails off all year, fought their tail off today, got back and went ahead. And then we destructed on ourselves. Offense and defense together. That's disappointing.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had to be carted to the locker room late in the game because of a right shoulder injury (the result of another Burfict hit), came back to direct the final scoring drive.
Pittsburgh, which got four field goals from Boswell, moves on to play a divisional game at Denver next weekend.
“We'll assess that tomorrow,” he said.
Saturday marked only the second time Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, bitter AFC North rivals, have met in the postseason. The first time was 10 years earlier, when then-Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a gruesome knee injury on his first pass of the game.
For the Bengals, more heartache arrived late Saturday night. They have not won a playoff game in 25 years. Since winning a wild-card game in early 1991, Cincinnati has lost eight playoff games in a row. Fourteen of their current players hadn't even been born when the franchise last won in the postseason.
“It sucks,” said rookie quarterback AJ McCarron, whose team looked to be on the verge of victory when he connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green with 1:50 to play. “To battle back the way we did and the circumstances of the game.…”
The game's first touchdown, which came with a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter, should live for a long while on the Steelers highlight reel. Receiver Martavis Bryant fully extended up to pull down a pass in the end zone, then was spun around before completing the catch. He wound up falling forward and pinning the ball against his right hamstring. He then did a somersault and somehow held on to the ball without allowing it to touch the ground.
All that, and he did it in a rainstorm that made an unseasonably warm night a miserable experience for the Bengals and their frustrated fans.
All of Cincinnati's scoring came in the fourth quarter, after the home team had fallen behind, 15-0.
When the Bengals finally went up, 16-15, on the AJ to A.J. connection, with the crowd cheering wildly, it looked as if the drought was over.
Then, an equally huge play by the home team. Burfict made a diving interception of a pass by backup Landry Jones. Paul Brown Stadium — a place where the Steelers had won in 14 of their previous 17 visits — shook to its pilings. Burfict ran the length of the field and all the way up the tunnel in celebration, then emerged like a conquering hero.
But the euphoria didn't last long. On the next play, with 1:36 on the clock, Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball back to Pittsburgh, giving the Steelers one more chance, starting at their nine-yard line.
That's when Roethlisberger came back in and led the winning drive. It was remarkable he was able to come back into the game after sustaining the shoulder injury on the final play of the third quarter.
It came when he was pile-driven into the turf by Burfict. Roethlisberger's throwing shoulder was crushed into the ground, and he wincingly walked to the sideline holding his hand to his stomach to immobilize his shoulder.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesFarmer