AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are expecting tight end Tyler Eifert to rejoin them for all offseason team activities in April after he received an injury scare in Sunday's Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

Test results in Cincinnati this week revealed he simply had a sprained left ankle, calming fears that he might have suffered a worse injury. He only will need rest.

It was two plays after Eifert recorded his only catch in the game, an 11-yard fourth-quarter snag, when he tried to catch another throw from Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston in the back of the end zone. Eifert had to stretch out for the attempted touchdown throw. When his momentum brought him to the ground, he dropped the ball. Eifert then got up and hobbled to the sideline, where he was initially evaluated.

Tests done just after the Pro Bowl -- a game Eifert reportedly brought Bengals trainer Nick Cosgray to as a guest -- came away with promising news. But the Bengals wanted to be sure that news could be verified by evaluations after Eifert returned to their facility.

Eifert was one of seven Bengals to appear in the Pro Bowl. His injury was the only one reported in Team Irvin's (coached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin) 49-27 win over Team Rice (coached by Hall of Famer Jerry Rice).

During the regular season, Eifert led all tight ends with 13 touchdown catches. He likely would have approached Rob Gronkowski's record 17 touchdown receptions by a tight end had he not missed parts of four games at the end of the season with head and neck injuries.

A.J. GreenAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarA.J. Green has 415 receptions and 45 touchdowns in his Bengals' career.

CINCINNATI -- Let the debate ensue.

Now that it appears Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson may retire, capping a short, but illustrious, nine-year career, who should take his place as the NFL's best receiver?

Of course, first you have to believe Johnson was the league's top wide out the past few seasons. If you aren't convinced he was, take yourself and your laptop/tablet/mobile device to a quiet corner, pull up YouTube, type "Megatron highlights," and just watch. The rest of us will wait.

Certainly, Johnson had a string of dazzling plays throughout his NFL career. But he had the numbers, too. His career receptions (731), yards (11,619), touchdowns (83) and yards per game (86.1) all rank first in Lions history.

Does that make him a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer? It's tough to say. Perhaps if he played another couple of seasons, or had the fortune of playing for more playoff teams, maybe the question wouldn't be up for debate.

Regardless, if this is the end of the road for Johnson, he's leaving the league in capable hands. Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and A.J. Green are at the forefront of the position's next wave of superstars. Second-year players Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry appear to be the position's long-term future.

Of that quintet, which player currently is the best? Honestly, you can't go wrong picking any of them. But given their overall experience, Brown, Jones and Green probably deserve consideration as the NFL's best at this position.

Say what you will about Jones and Brown, but Green has exhibited a level of consistency (at this point in his career) that has only been matched in league history by Randy Moss. He and Moss are the only receivers to have 1,000 or more receiving yards in each of their first five seasons. Green has a chance to tie Moss' record of six 1,000-yard seasons in 2016.

Green also stacks up favorably when some other stats are put alongside those of Brown, Jones and Johnson in their first five seasons. He has more catches (415) than any of them had in that same stretch to start their careers. His 45 touchdowns also ranks second only to Johnson's 49.

If Green keeps up his current pace, by the end of his ninth season, he will have 81 career touchdowns, two short of Johnson. He'll also have 11,108 yards, some 600 shy of where Johnson finished. Both numbers would become Bengals records, outperforming marks previously set by Chad Johnson.

Much like Brown and Jones, Green has put up these statistics while playing with a bevy of other offensive weapons. Although Green was drafted fourth overall as the star receiver for Andy Dalton to throw to (Dalton was selected a round after Green in the 2011 draft), he's shared playmaking opportunities with Marvin Jones, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Mohamed Sanu, Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert during the past five years.

How can Green separate himself from the other elite wide outs in future seasons? By continuing to make plays in big scenarios like he did in the closing minutes of last month's wild-card playoff game against Brown's Steelers. Those can be his highlight-reel grabs. His go-ahead, 25-yard touchdown reception from AJ McCarron very nearly became an iconic play in team history. Had the Bengals held on for the win, it would have been.

The only way to get those plays? To keep leading his team back to the playoffs -- and to start winning games there. That's something Johnson couldn't do.

Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert left Sunday night's Pro Bowl with a lower left leg injury, the extent of which wasn't fully known just after the game.

According to's Geoff Hobson, who covered the game from Hawaii, "initial tests on Eifert were good." The tight end left Aloha Stadium with his foot in a boot, Hobson also reported. He added that when Eifert returns to Cincinnati he will have more evaluations to make sure nothing was broken, and to confirm nothing major happened to him.

Tyler EifertKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsBengals tight end Tyler Eifert celebrates a Team Irvin touchdown in Sunday's Pro Bowl.

Eifert believes he jammed his heel on a fourth-quarter play that resulted in an incomplete pass.

It was just after Eifert caught an 11-yard pass for a first down when he attempted to snag another throw from Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston in the back of the end zone. Eifert had to stretch out a little for the attempted touchdown throw. When his momentum brought him to the ground, he dropped the ball. Eifert then got up and hobbled to the sideline, where he was initially evaluated.

Eifert was one of seven Bengals to appear in the unconferenced game. His injury was the only one reported in Team Irvin's (coached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin) 49-27 win over Team Rice (coached by Hall of Famer Jerry Rice).

When Geno Atkins was named a captain last week for one of this year's "unconferenced" Pro Bowl teams, it seemed likely that he and the coach of Team Irvin, Michael Irvin, would try to load up their roster with Cincinnati Bengals players.

They did just that Wednesday night.

By the end of the night's Pro Bowl draft, Team Irvin picked six of the Bengals' seven Pro Bowl selections who made the trip to Hawaii. So Bengals fans who watch Sunday's all-star game on ESPN will mostly want to keep an eye on the players who will be on Irvin's sideline.

Cincinnati's Geno AtkinsTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesGeno Atkins is one of six Bengals who'll play for Team Irvin in Sunday's Pro Bowl.

The only Bengal who didn't make the Team Irvin cut was special-teamer Cedric Peerman. A late Pro Bowl addition, the backup running back was selected by Team Rice, coached by Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice.

Bengals joining Atkins on Team Irvin include: offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, receiver A.J. Green, tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and cornerback Adam Jones.

With seven participating Pro Bowl players, the Bengals are among the most represented teams at this year's game. Carolina led the way with 10 Pro Bowl picks, but obviously none of them are able to participate since they instead will be getting ready for Super Bowl 50 next week.

Cincinnati had two other selections who were unable to play due to late-season injuries: quarterback Andy Dalton and safety Reggie Nelson. Dalton was an alternate at quarterback and would have played in this game had his right thumb been at 100 percent. He still wasn't medically cleared after the Dec. 13 injury in a loss to the Steelers.

Nelson also was injured against the Steelers, suffering an ankle injury in the wild-card playoff game against Pittsburgh earlier this month. He was replaced this week by Dolphins safety Reshad Jones.

Like Peerman, Adam Jones was added to the Pro Bowl roster this past week. This will be the first time both players have appeared in the game. The same goes for Dunlap, who was originally voted in as an alternate. By contrast, for Green, this is the fifth Pro Bowl he has been part of in his five seasons in the league.

Here's the complete list of Bengals playing Sunday:

Team Irvin

DT Geno Atkins

OT Andrew Whitworth

WR A.J. Green

TE Tyler Eifert

DE Carlos Dunlap

CB Adam Jones

Team Rice

ST Cedric Peerman

The hatred that the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have for each other bubbled over in each of the teams' three meetings this past season, and Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was at the center of much of the tension.

So it probably comes as a surprise to learn that he actually does have some level of respect for his division rivals -- in the video game world, at least.

Burfict tweeted his admiration Tuesday for the version of the Steelers presented in the Madden video game franchise.

Burfict's tweet was directed at fellow Bengals linebacker Marquis Flowers, who responded with a tweet of his own, saying, "You crazy as hell bruh."

At the end of Cincinnati's wild-card round playoff game against Pittsburgh earlier this month, Burfict was flagged for hitting receiver Antonio Brown in the head with his shoulder pads after Brown couldn't catch a high throw. The play left Brown with a concussion, and he wasn't able to recover from it in time for the Steelers' divisional-round game against Denver the following week.

Burfict's hit on Brown led the NFL to suspend him for the first three games of the 2016 season. The league considered it the latest incident in a string of player-safety violations on his part. He is appealing. The linebacker also was fined nearly $70,000 in the Steelers-Bengals regular-season meeting in December.

Appearing in 10 games in 2015, Burfict had 74 tackles and intercepted two passes.

Paul Spinelli/AP ImagesHue Jackson helped lead the Bengals to an AFC North title as the offense averaged 26.2 points per game.

CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson is a head coach now, but he was recognized Thursday for his work this past season as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator.

The Pro Football Writers of America named Jackson their co-assistant coach of the year along with Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

It's the first time since 2009 that a Bengals assistant coach won the award. That year, current Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer (then the Bengals' defensive coordinator) was named the PFWA assistant of the year. In 2000, when he was the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator, current Bengals coach Marvin Lewis also earned top assistant's honors from the PFWA.

Named the Cleveland Browns' head coach on Jan. 13, Jackson has become a head coach for the second time. He led the Oakland Raiders to an 8-8 record in 2011 before being fired at the end of his only season. In 2012, he was hired to coach the Bengals' defensive backs. After a season, he coached the Bengals' running backs before spending the past two seasons as offensive coordinator.

Jackson's offense averaged 26.2 points per game in 2015, good enough for seventh in the league. His 15th-ranked total offense helped carry the Bengals to a 12-4 record and a fourth AFC North title despite losing quarterback Andy Dalton -- who had the best year of his five-season career -- and tight end Tyler Eifert to injuries late in the season.

Although the Bengals went 2-2 (including the wild-card round loss to Pittsburgh) in games that backup quarterback AJ McCarron was forced to start, there still appeared to be very little drop-off in quarterback play.

PFWA's news release called Jackson's Bengals offense one that "used varied looks and inventive play calls."

CINCINNATI -- The play that arguably (although temporarily) turned the momentum of last Saturday's wild-card round playoff game to the Cincinnati Bengals' favor came with a ruling that went against the team.

For a few moments, the play galvanized the Bengals. It prompted some to march across the field to challenge the Pittsburgh Steelers after one of their own was literally knocked out by a vicious hit that caused him to lose the football. It appeared to be just the switch that needed to be flipped before the Bengals embarked upon a 15-point comeback that ultimately was dashed in the game's final seconds.

Still, the more immediate result of the play was a hit that went unpenalized but led to Bengals running back Giovani Bernard receiving a concussion.

Ryan Shazier, Giovani BernardAaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsDean Blandino said the officials were correct in not calling a penalty on Ryan Shazier's hit on Giovani Bernard in the Bengals-Steelers wild-card game.

On Friday, the league's top officiating boss sided with his referees on the play, outlining in an NFL-produced video reasons why he believes they got the call right.

We'll get to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino's comments below, but first, let's recap the play in question.

With 1:43 remaining in the third quarter, Bernard was coming out of the flat, looking for a pass from quarterback AJ McCarron. At the same time Bernard was raising his hands to catch the football, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier closed on him quickly, clearly sensing an opportunity to lower a hard hit that might dislodge the football a split second after Bernard caught it.

In virtually the same instant that Bernard caught the ball and turned to run upfield, Shazier dropped him with a tackle that forced a fumble and also sent Bernard to the turf face down, where he momentarily lied motionless.

As officials reviewed the play to determine if it was in fact a fumble, Shazier celebrated, upsetting Bengals running back Jeremy Hill.

"It really wasn't the hit," Hill said after the game. "I was just more upset with seeing [Bernard] on the ground that they were still trying to celebrate. That just rubbed me the wrong way. I have Gio's back. I know Ryan, Ryan's a good friend of mine. I was just disappointed in Ryan. That's all I told him. I said, 'Ryan, I don't understand that. That's not football.'"

According to Blandino, Shazier's hit was clean football. Why? Because Bernard established himself as a runner and was no longer a defenseless receiver; and because the players were running toward each other at different angles, meaning the way Shazier led with his head wasn't an issue.

Both points certainly can be debated.

"If he has established himself as a runner -- control, both feet, ability to ward off, attempt to avoid contact, that time element -- if that time element has been met, then he can be contacted in the head," Blandino said. "You watch the play. [There's] control, he's going to take several steps, he's going to turn and become a runner. So he's not a defenseless player at the time of contact."

As to the point about leading with the crown of his helmet, Shazier would have been at risk for earning a penalty had he and Bernard been traveling at the same angle, Blandino said. He added that Bernard's momentum was angled toward the sideline, while Shazier was moving directly north/south.

"The theory being, when players are moving at [the same] angles, they don't have as much opportunity to avoid that contact," Blandino said.

Did the league get the ruling of a clean hit and fumble right? Despite the league's explanation, it still seems debatable.

AJ McCarronChris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback AJ McCarron showed he was poised and ready to lead during the Bengals' stretch run.

CINCINNATI -- Surely you remember the draft-weekend reports that circulated about AJ McCarron almost two years ago.

You know, the ones that said he came off as too cocky in interviews with general managers and owners. They are the same ones that made it seem as if he would be a bad teammate who might sulk around the locker room if he didn't get enough instant playing time.

The Cincinnati Bengals paid those reports little mind, drafting McCarron in the fifth round in 2014. Their plan was for him to learn their offense, take time to recover from a sore shoulder and be a viable backup in the event Andy Dalton got hurt.

Roughly 19 months later, in Week 14 of this season, Dalton broke a bone in his hand. After 80 straight regular-season and postseason starts, Dalton was forced to the Bengals' bench. What did the Bengals learn about McCarron in the four-plus games when he took over?

"We're glad we have him," coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's what we expected."

Right away, McCarron threw for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in three quarters of a game he was suddenly thrust into. With his first legitimate NFL action coming against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in an important late-season game, the Bengals mostly felt good about what the second-year reserve did in relief.

They got more from him the next week, when he took advantage of three first-half turnovers from his defense to lead the Bengals to a 21-0 halftime lead during his first career start at San Francisco. In Week 16, he came out to another fast start, giving the Bengals a halftime lead in a Monday night game at brutally cold Denver. Had he kept his eyes on an overtime snap from center Russell Bodine, perhaps he would have led the Bengals on a scoring drive that would have led to a first-round bye and an appearance in this weekend's divisional round of the playoffs.

Instead, Cincinnati was forced into playing in last week's wild-card round. Although the Bengals lost on a series of fluky incidents in the final two minutes, McCarron's 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green with 1:50 to play gave the Bengals a lead and a legitimate chance at their first playoff victory in 25 years. Afterward, he didn't pin the loss on any of his teammates."It doesn't matter if anyone lost their poise or didn't," he said, "We win together and lose together."

"He's mature and handled the situation after the football game with what you want to see," Lewis said. "I'm proud of him, and proud of what he did, and I know he'll be nothing but better next season, and that's good for us."

Although McCarron has been believed to be possible trade bait for the Bengals, those chances appear to be diminishing. Not only are they diminishing because of what Lewis said, but now that former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has left for a head-coaching position within the division, it doesn't seem likely the Bengals would be willing to part with their promising young backup only to play against him twice a year.

With Dalton expected to be back to 100 percent long before training camp begins, the Bengals go into the offseason with one of the NFL's most stable quarterback situations.

"We feel pretty good about quarterback," Lewis said. "At this point a year ago, we weren't sure about AJ and his development. We assumed and hoped, and it has worked out."

Will FullerGary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsMel Kiper Jr. projects Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller to the Bengals in his first mock draft.

CINCINNATI -- Now that the offseason is officially here for the Cincinnati Bengals, mock draft season has arrived as well.

In his first mock ahead of this spring's draft, ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. selected Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller as the Bengals' first-round pick at No. 24 overall. After Saturday's wild-card round playoff exit, the Bengals were locked into the 24th spot in the draft's order.

This will be the fourth time in team history the Bengals have picked 24th, with Archie Griffin (1976), Johnathan Joseph (2006) and Darqueze Dennard (2013) being the other three players they have selected there.

As for Fuller, could he find himself in stripes by late April?

It's possible. But it doesn't seem overly likely for now because the Bengals recently have used their first-round pick on players who they believe can be groomed into legitimate starting roles down the line. Cedric Ogbuehi, last year's first-round pick, for instance, was eased into playing time this year after finishing rehab from a torn ACL he suffered in Texas A&M's bowl game the previous December. It appears likely he will be the Bengals' starting right tackle next fall if Cincinnati doesn't re-sign Andre Smith.

The drafting of Fuller -- or any receiver -- would hinge upon other free agency moves the Bengals make in the next couple of months, too. It seems unlikely they will hold on to both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, so in the event they lose one or both to free agency in March, Fuller's drafting would make sense as it would shore up a position that would suddenly be depleted. Would the Bengals want to entrust a rookie with the task of starting next season as the No. 3 receiver behind A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, though?

It's hard to say if they would. It's mainly hard to say that right now because it's anyone's guess what their offense might look like. Hue Jackson's departure to Cleveland on Wednesday left the Bengals with a vacancy at offensive coordinator.

Fuller was certainly a good receiver at Notre Dame, catching 144 passes for more than 2,500 yards in just three years. He also had 30 career receiving touchdowns. A consistent deep threat and a threat to pick up yards after the catch, Fuller's 20.3-yards-per-reception average was the 12th-highest in the nation in 2015 for players with 25 or more receptions.

But given the attrition the Bengals could have at linebacker and on the offensive line and at cornerback in the next two years, it seems more likely that they use their first-round pick -- barring what happens in free agency -- on one of those positions. They have several veterans at those spots who either are entering free agency this year or who will be at the end of deals next year.

CINCINNATI -- Whenever any of the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive backs were asked the past two years about their position coach, effusive praise typically followed.

That was no different Monday afternoon.

One day before Vance Joseph left the Bengals to take the Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator position following a two-year stint helping coordinate Cincinnati's defensive backs, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was pleading with Bengals management to figure out a way to keep Joseph around.

"Me being a player and him being in my room 24/7, I'm preaching that we bring him back. I'm begging that we bring him back," Kirkpatrick said.

Clearly his pleas weren't heard.

Even if they had been, there wasn't much the Bengals could do. Before he even left Houston to become the Bengals' co-DBs coach two years ago, those inside the NFL were proclaiming Joseph an up-and-coming defensive coordinator or head-coaching candidate. For that reason alone, the Bengals felt lucky to sway him to Cincinnati, even if they knew he wouldn't be there long.

Last offseason, the Bengals blocked Joseph from taking the lead defensive coaches' position in Denver since he was still under contract, but the fact the Broncos were interested in hiring him was a sign he wouldn't be under the Bengals' control for too much longer.

"Vance has done a great job here," Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Monday. "He'll do a good job wherever he goes."

Kirkpatrick, who became a starter this past season after three years as a backup, credited Joseph for honing his game.

"He's a guy that I look up to," Kirkpatrick said. "He's a coach that has developed my game tremendously. He's pretty much taken me to the next level as far as film study and everything. I hate to see Coach VJ go, but he has a future that he has to seek upon and he has bigger goals, and I wish him the best."

Joseph will be joined in Miami by Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke. Another addition from the 2013 offseason, Burke came to Cincinnati after a stint in Detroit.

CINCINNATI -- The next few months could be a whirlwind for Adam Jones.

Days after drawing a personal foul penalty for making contact with an official late in the Cincinnati Bengals' 18-16 wild-card round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 11-year veteran spoke on the harsh reality about his future: he now has to become a salesman, convincing the Bengals and others why signing a 32-year-old cornerback to a new contract is a worthy investment.

"I truly love it here in Cincinnati. I want to be here," said Jones, one of 15 pending Bengals free agents. "Obviously, if things are right, I'll stay here. If not, I have to do what I have to do. I still have to take care of my family."

Adam JonesMark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAdam Jones says he wants to remain with the Bengals, but he will at least entertain free agency.

If Jones is able to re-sign with the Bengals, it would be his fourth contract with the franchise since he was originally brought on board in May 2010. After a series of off-field incidents contributed to the rocky start of a career that first took Jones to Tennessee and Dallas, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis felt Jones was worthy of a second chance. Since coming to Cincinnati, Jones has made more headlines for his on-field play; some of which has still caught the ire of the league and opponents.

Before Jones' penalty Saturday night, he was also part of a controversial play in the Bengals' season opener at Oakland when he retaliated to jabs Raiders receiver Amari Cooper was directing into his throat. At the end of one long Raiders run, Jones ended up on the ground with Cooper, where he pushed the rookie wideout's helmet off his head before slamming his bare head into the helmet. Jones was fined $35,000 for that play.

Otherwise, Jones was one of the Bengals' best players in 2015, recording 62 tackles (one shy of his career high) and three interceptions. A case could be made that as good as his past three seasons have been, this one was the best of the three.

"Adam's been great. He's been great all year," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "He's played his butt off. He had a really good year."

Given the gamble the Bengals took on him due to his past, Jones is appreciative of the opportunity the front office, run by team president Mike Brown and his daughter and son-in-law, afforded him over the years.

"The Browns have done a lot for me and my family," Jones said. "Coach [Marvin] Lewis also. I'm a pretty loyal person when it comes to stuff like that, but I've got to take care of my family first and foremost. We'll go through the process and see how it goes."

Jones told ESPN during training camp that the team had reached out about a contract extension then. Once the season began, though, Jones didn't hear anything else. It was near the start of the regular season that Pro Bowlers A.J. Green and Andrew Whitworth were locked into extensions.

Jones, the sixth overall draft pick in 2005, said he owes going through a free-agency search to himself and his family.

"First defensive player picked, had everything took from me, came here and was the fourth corner, worked my ass off every day, got my starting position back and played at an elite level as a top 5 corner," Jones said. "I owe that at least to my family and myself. We'll see how it goes."

 Marvin LewisAP Photo/John MinchilloBengals players say they need to look in the mirror -- and not at Marvin Lewis -- to address the team's discipline problems.

CINCINNATI -- Domata Peko regretted getting hurt.

A high-ankle sprain early in the third quarter of Saturday night's wild-card game against Pittsburgh sidelined the Cincinnati Bengals veteran, forcing him to miss the end-of-game shenanigans that have been debated ad nausea the past 48 hours.

The defensive tackle wasn't the only one missing in action. Safety Reggie Nelson was, as well. Another victim of an ankle injury, he was run from the game in the second quarter.

Peko believes if both captains were on the field in the final two minutes of the game, perhaps none of the fireworks would have gone off.

"That's the part I hated about that night," Peko said. "I believe if one of us are out there, then maybe we would have never gotten that penalty. I wish I would have been out there to help. But that's the sad part about it. I was on the sideline and couldn't do anything."

As you likely know by now, inside the final 22 seconds, with the Bengals leading, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones were tagged with 30 yards of personal-foul penalties. That allowed the Steelers to attempt -- and make -- a chip-shot field goal that ultimately gave them the win.

Going forward, perhaps the most meaningful impact those penalties will have is that they will force the Bengals to become more committed to keeping their composure.

Since the game, many have said the responsibility for the Bengals' lacking discipline fell solely on head coach Marvin Lewis. But his players want it known that the blame is on them, too.

"It's on all of us. Men are men," 10-year veteran Andrew Whitworth said. "There's nothing a coach can honestly do in that exact situation to control guys."

Just after the game, Whitworth was quick to pin the lacking discipline on failures within the team's leadership.

A report surfaced late Saturday night with unnamed players suggesting Lewis had allowed a locker-room culture that didn't hold players like Burfict and Jones accountable when their actions might have gone over the line.

"A lot of people put an emphasis on that, but the reality is we played a lot of great football all year long," Whitworth said. "Coach Lewis is a part of that. He's a reason for that. The things he does on a day-in, day-out basis to put us in position to win: You get credit for that, too. Sometimes when you lose, everybody wants to find the exact person who has to be at fault. That's the nature of this business.

"Leadership is a hard thing. For us as players, that leadership's got to be better."

When asked how much more he wanted to see his players self-discipline themselves, Lewis said he felt they did that well in 2015 -- up until the final 22 seconds of Saturday's game.

"We have spent a lot of time on that this year," Lewis said Monday. "More than you could understand."

Apparently that didn't prevent the coach from putting his foot down before sending players into the offseason.

"We've hit the hammer on the nail already," Peko said. "Coach has already said that moving forward here we're not going to do things that way. If anybody is having any arguments with referees, he's going to get you out of there. Moving forward, we're going to make that change, and it's a good change."

CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict's past has come back to haunt him.

The NFL announced Monday that a series of repeated violations of player-safety rules will cause the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker to be suspended for the first three games of the 2016 season. It appeared Burfict's penalty after hitting Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the head -- albeit with his shoulder pads -- on a key play in Saturday night's AFC wild-card game was the league's breaking point. The collision that led in part to a 35-yard, game-wining Steelers field goal came a week after a hard, fine-earning hit on Baltimore Ravens tight end Maxx Williams, who was nowhere near the activity of play.

Clearly the league wants to send Burfict a statement it believes he didn't receive when he was charged nearly $70,000 in fines for a series of incidents in a December meeting with the Steelers, and $50,000 for that hit on the Baltimore tight end.

Vontaze BurfictJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesBengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was suspended three games for safety violations.

Here are several ways Burfict's suspension will affect the Bengals:

Vincent Rey should stick after free agency. From the outside looking in, it seemed this was going to happen anyway. An undrafted player, like Burfict, Rey climbed the Bengals' defensive ranks the past six years because of his desire to make himself better. First he earned playing time on various special-teams units, and that led to a reserve role at linebacker. Whenever Burfict or other linebackers suffered injuries in past years, Rey's reserve role turned into a starter's role. This past season, he played regularly, particularly at the start of the year while filling in for Burfict, who was finishing rehab from an offseason microfracture knee surgery. A more-than-capable backup, Rey proved his value in 2015. He proved he was a dependable backup who can replace Burfict while he's unavailable. He may have to do it again.

Burfict will miss a critical stage. While the Bengals would prefer Burfict miss the first three games instead of the last three, they still have to be troubled that he will be unavailable for such a critical stage of the season. Just like this past year, Cincinnati will want to come out strong in 2016 and string together a series of early wins to jump out to a commanding lead in the division. True, the Bengals won their first six games without Burfict in 2015, but this upcoming schedule could have a less favorable start. The full schedule will come out in April, but there is a chance the Bengals could see the Denver Broncos, Steelers (at home or away) or New England Patriots (away) at the start of the season.

Renewed emphasis on walking away. The Bengals seem to be making a renewed effort at preaching the impact of poise and worth of walking away. Players say they feel like they lost respect for opponents and for the game of football at times this past season, and they want to recapture that respect. Burfict's suspension serves as the perfect reinforcement of a lesson that should have been taught some time ago. Coach Marvin Lewis contends it has been taught, but it has been hard to tell of late.

Watered-down Burfict coming? One of Burfict's best attributes -- in the Bengals' eyes -- is that he toes a particular line of aggression that makes him a formidable linebacker. He had a league-leading 171 tackles in 2013 and reached 74 this year after missing six games. Might a watered-down version of him appear once he returns from the suspension? Will he play with less of an edge now? Will he be too tame or scared to be fined or suspended even more?

CINCINNATI – Andrew Whitworth has respect for many in the Pittsburgh Steelers' organization.

The Cincinnati Bengals veteran offensive tackle even respects Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, going as far as giving Tomlin a hug at midfield following Saturday night’s Bengals loss in an AFC wild-card-round playoff game, and apologizing to him for the game's unnecessarily chippy nature.

"I've got a ton of respect for those guys," Whitworth said. "But Joey Porter is not one of them."

Andrew WhitworthAP Photo/David KohlVeteran OT Andrew Whitworth had some choice words for Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter.

A former Steelers linebacker, Porter is now an assistant in Pittsburgh following a playing career that spanned 13 seasons and ended in 2011. He was also the man at the middle of an exchange with Bengals cornerback Adam Jones that contributed in part to Cincinnati's late-game collapse.

But that isn't the primary reason Whitworth has no respect for Porter.

"He's a guy that has always run his mouth," Whitworth said. "He's always been disrespectful to people."

It's for that reason the Bengals are all the more upset that Jones responded to Porter during an on-field altercation on Saturday night's penultimate play.

"They knew who Joey Porter is," Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "You can't do that in that situation."

Jones angrily tried to respond to Porter's comments on the field while Steelers receiver Antonio Brown was being administered medical assistance following a hard hit from Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Along with Burfict's 15-yard penalty for the hit on Brown, Jones was slapped with another 15 yards for confronting Porter. The 30 yards of penalties came just before Chris Boswell kicked a 35-yard chip shot to give the Steelers the 18-16 win in the closing seconds.

Whitworth highlighted the Bengals' previous meeting with the Steelers on Dec. 13 as another moment when he felt Porter was most disrespectful to him and his teammates. It was during both teams' pregame stretching routines that a scuffle broke out with Burfict in the middle of it.

"He was out at midfield m-f'ing everybody, wanting to fight, and then he was doing that in this game," Whitworth said of Porter. "He's not a football player anymore, he's a coach, so he's got to be held to a higher standard. I think the unprofessionalism he shows is just ridiculous. It really is. So that's unfortunate.

"The guy was a good football player, but as a coach, I would hope he learns to have a little more respect for players. … You're a coach. You shouldn't be out there enticing the fight or in any way adding to it. We talk about the NFL shield all the time. As a coach, you're out there to represent the league in the sense of what the league wants. If you're going to be a coach in their league, you shouldn't be out there in that way."

Added Whitworth: "To me, Joey Porter just doesn't have a lot of class."