CINCINNATI — During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the greatest athlete alive was Bo Jackson.
Jackson played baseball and football at Auburn University. Hyper-talented, he was drafted in both the MLB and NFL, signing with the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Raiders. He played baseball and football professionally at MVP levels, something no athlete has matched in the modern era.
Jackson was famous for saying baseball was his job and football was his hobby (he won the Heisman Trophy in 1985). He would play the full baseball season with the Royals, then played the rest of the NFL season for the Raiders once baseball was finished. His humble demeanor only made him more likable to fans, who were buying his Nikes as fast as they were Michael Jordan's.
His feats of athleticism would be mythical if they weren't captured on camera. He's a legend as well as a question: What if? We never found out, and some fans blame that on the Cincinnati Bengals.
Bo knows the Bengals
Unfortunately for Cincinnati, Bo wasn't mythical. Jackson rarely came across any team that could handle him, but the Bengals' problems were on another level. Never known for great defensive play, Cincinnati was often scorched by Jackson and his Hall-of-Fame teammate in the backfield, Marcus Allen. YouTube highlight montages of Jackson are rife with white jerseys and striped helmets being tossed aside like an afterthought by a black and silver bolt of lightning.
And like a bolt of lightning, he was gone in a flash after four short years.
Cincinnati won its last playoff game on Jan. 6, 1991 in a Wild Card game by blowing out its hated division rival: The Houston Oilers. The next week, the Bengals traveled to Los Angeles to play the AFC Division round against the Raiders.
Jackson was again crushing the Bengals when disaster struck. Jackson took off down the sideline on a run and was tackled by Cincinnati linebacker Kevin Walker. What looked like a routine play shattered a career: Jackson dislocated his hip. Due to the circumstances of the injury, he would need an artificial hip replacement. Despite losing Jackson, the Bengals lost to the Raiders 20-10 and hasn't won a playoff game since.
Jackson never played another down in the NFL. Miraculously, he managed to make it back to the Major Leagues with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels for a couple seasons, but was never the same player. His days of haunting the Bengals on the field were supposedly over.
After the Jackson injury, the Bengals flailed. Cincinnati Super Bowl coach Sam Wyche was fired after the 1991 season. Between 1991 and 2002 the Bengals had a record of 55-137 with a .287 winning percentage, the worst in NFL history for a team over a decade.
Then Marvin Lewis arrived.
Lewis was the architect of the Baltimore Ravens defense, which set NFL records and led Baltimore to the Super Bowl in 2000. If anyone could turn Cincinnati around and back to the playoffs, it was Lewis.
The year before he arrived, the Bengals finished 2-14 in 2002. The next season, Cincinnati drafted Carson Palmer with the first pick in the NFL draft. He sat on the bench while veteran Jon Kitna guided the Bengals to an unexpected 8-8 season. The next year, Cincinnati finished 8-8 again, but with Palmer under center for the first time.
In 2005, with a monster offense and opportunistic defense, Cincinnati finished 11-5 and made the playoffs. Better yet, it was against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers and the game was in Cincinnati. The Bengals had just beaten the Steelers on the road that season and seemed to have exorcised its previous demons against its AFC North rivals.
On Cincinnati's second play from scrimmage, Palmer threw a bomb down the right sideline to rookie wide receiver Chris Henry. Pittsburgh defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen hit Palmer low after the play, tearing the ACL and MCL in Palmer's knee. He was carted off the field as fans in the stadium stood in shock.
After a 15-year wait, what were the odds your star quarterback would tear two ligaments in his knee on the second play of a playoff game?
Maybe Bo knows - or at least the curse.
Cincinnati led at halftime, but backup Kitna couldn't maintain the emotionally deflated team without Palmer. The Steelers won the playoff game and would win the Super Bowl a few weeks later.
Pacman and Burfict
Lewis's last playoff game summed up the Bengals and its rivalry with Pittsburgh. The Steelers played tough, nasty and physical - but they were also smart. The Bengals defense never played smart, and it cost them their last chance at a win in the playoffs.
With Andy Dalton injured, backup A.J. McCarron started against Pittsburgh in the 2015 AFC Wild Card playoffs. His 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green with 1:50 left in the game gave Cincinnati a 16-15 lead and what looked to be its first playoff win in 25 years. Then came one of the biggest chokes in the history of sports.
The Bengals regained possession of the ball after an interception by Linebacker Vontaze Burfict. This should have clinched it. Needing to run the clock out, McCarron handed off to Jeremy Hill, who fumbled after a hit by former Ohio State Buckeye Ryan Shazier. The Steelers recovered the ball, but still had to travel down the field with a minute left to kick a field goal to take the lead.
With 22 seconds left, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass to Antonio Brown that was incomplete. But Burfict was called for unnecessary roughness. Adam "Pacman" Jones was also called for Unsportsmanlike Conduct well after the play ended. A packed Paul Brown Stadium stood shocked.
The result was a 30-yard penalty that took Pittsburgh from the 47 to the 17, setting up a chip-shot field goal that gave them the win in one of the most inconceivable finishes in NFL history.
Lewis is lauded for taking the Bengals from a .287 winning percentage to seven playoff games, but couldn't win any of them, one of the only blemishes on a Hall of Fame resume.
Could it be the curse of Bo Jackson? Until this week, the supposed curse was never discussed much, but with the Las Vegas Raiders arriving in town to play the Bengals in their first playoff game in five years, one can't help but wonder if Cincinnati can exorcise this particular demon. Just make sure Joey Burrow watches his knees.