By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Their previous meeting resulted in nearly $140,000 in fines and more punishment is likely to come from the NFL following Saturday's outrageous Wild Card playoff between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.
The National Football League has been striving to make the inherently violent game safer for players, but the contest instead showcased the reckless side of the sport.
Nine officials were stationed in a line across the entire Paul Brown Stadium field prior to the playoff game, won by Pittsburgh 18-16, to separate bitter AFC North rivals who had scuffled before the start of their encounter last month.
Peace reigned Saturday until the kickoff, when bad blood between the teams flowed with head-high hits, personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct calls that even involved coaches from both sides.
The worst was saved for last, at least for fans of the hapless Bengals, who squandered a 16-15 lead with two fouls on the same play that immediately gifted the Steelers a game-clinching 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, handed a fine of nearly $70,000 from the last game against Pittsburgh, went from hero to goat when he hit Antonio Brown in the head with his shoulder several steps after a pass for Brown sailed incomplete over his head.
About a minute before, Burfict had made what appeared to be a game-clinching interception.
As Brown lay on the ground, and officials were sorting out the penalty and trainers evaluated Brown for a concussion, Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he raged against Steelers assistant Joey Porter, who had ventured onto the field among Bengals players.
In the first quarter, Pittsburgh offensive line coach Mike Munchak was flagged after he grabbed the jersey and some dreadlocks of safety Reggie Nelson who had shoved a Steelers player out of bounds.
Players milled menacingly on the field after Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier laid out running back Giovani Bernard with a concussion after a shot near the head, and stripped him of the ball for a fumble recovery.
Cincinnati's meltdown extended a long run of playoff futility, with their last playoff victory coming in 1991.
The team's fifth loss at the first hurdle in the last five years gave coach Marvin Lewis an NFL record 0-7 mark in the playoffs.
“If Marvin Lewis can’t control his players, then maybe Marvin shouldn’t be on the sidelines coaching,” former Bengals quarterback and CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said after the game, according to Pro Football Talk/NBC sports.
Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that it was the worst playoff defeat of the Marvin Lewis Era.
"Too many players were out of control. That’s on the head coach," according to Daugherty. "Passion has its place in football. Reckless stupidity does not."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Steve Keating.)