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‘AFC North Football’? Big questions in wake of Steelers-Bengals bloodbath

December 5, 2017 GMT

It was the quintessential train wreck that we, apparently, couldn’t look away from.

The bad blood leading into it. The war of words. The jarring tackles. The bone-crunching blocks.

It was “AFC North football,” Ben Roethlisberger said after the Steelers edged the Bengals, 23-20, on Monday night in Cincinnati.

But it left many wondering whether this was football at all. And if it was, is it time to question everything we think about it?

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier and Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict each left the field on backboards — Shazier after an attempted tackle in which he jammed his head, injuring his back, and Burfict after a blindside block from Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Yet in the midst of their physical pain and agony, not to mention the all-too-apparent mental blow it dealt the players on that field Monday night, we tuned in. Tribune-Review columnist Tim Benz — and a slew of others across the national media landscape — are questioning why. It’s become clear that nothing can be done to change violence in football.

“If they are the ones who are putting each others health in danger playing the game, the fans and media shouldn’t be held to a higher standard just watching it,” Benz writes.

This was among the NFL’s worst nightmares: A game that, by nature of the teams involved, was going to garner a large audience anyway became one of the more a brutal, violent games the league has seen. And it was seen in primetime by a captive national audience.

“You can throw reason out the window regarding what has become of Steelers-Bengals,” The Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer writes. “At a time when the NFL needs to reduce dirty hits and headhunting for the sake of its perceived sputtering, harder-to-watch product, those teams continue to stand in defiance, which created an even worse look in one of the league’s prime-time television showcases.”

The NFL is now tasked with trying to salvage a tarnished image stemming from the events at Paul Brown Stadium.

“The point will not be to water down the game or take away someone’s manhood or earn credit by clutching pearls,” ESPN’s Kevin Seifert writes. “It will be to preserve the vast majority of a game that many people love, at the expense of a level of savagery from which we can all stand to evolve.”

Sports Illustrated challenged us — the viewers — in response to the violence.

As we watch blow after blow, guys’ heads bouncing off one another, Shazier in a panic without movement in his lower half, Burfict laid out on the field, we nonetheless keep our TVs on. SI’s Connor Orr wonders when enough is enough.

“Shazier should have scared the hell out of every person watching on Monday,” Orr writes. “He should have made us wince with every boneheaded helmet-to-helmet hit that followed — and there were plenty. He should have forced us to ask an important question: How do we stop this from feeling normal?”

Maybe we’ll find out ... when we all tune in again next week.