CINCINNATI — This was all rather mundane for nearly three quarters. Remember that?
The Steelers led 15–0, the Bengals were completely incapable of moving the football and it all seemed headed toward a quiet conclusion. The most memorable part of the game through almost three quarters was the unbelievable Martavis Bryant touchdown catch, a catch that would be a mere afterthought by the end of it all. There were a few scraps on occasion, sure, as often happens when two rivals get after it, especially in a playoff game. But nothing all that noteworthy.
That is, until all hell broke loose.
“Never [played] in one like this,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said once it was over.
The chaos came to a head in the closing seconds, when a personal foul penalty on Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict and a subsequent unsportsmanlike conduct call against his teammate, Adam Jones, moved the Steelers in range for a short game-winning field goal. Chris Boswell hit it from 35 yards to send Pittsburgh to an 18–16 win and a date with Denver next week.
Mere moments earlier, Burfict had pushed his team to the brink of a cathartic victory—the Bengals had lost four straight years in the wild-card round prior to Saturday. After that interception he ran the length of the field, several teammates following him, and up the far tunnel as Paul Brown Stadium, which had been so unhappy for three quarters, lost its collective mind.
He was defending that end of the field when Brown crossed the middle looking for a pass. Burfict caught him high, on a hit that left Brown with a concussion.
“He's trying to go over and defend the play,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “There were a lot of plays out there and calls went different ways. They deemed that to be a hit to the head I guess, and others not today.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin had a similar reaction, at least publicly, saying, “It's football” and “sometimes plays are bang-bang,” even referencing a low hit by his safety, Mike Mitchell, on Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert during an earlier matchup between these rivals.
Not everyone was as convinced that it was an innocent mistake, so much as it was the result of the emotional Burfict tightroping the line all game.
“Man, he'll get his,” said Mitchell of Burfict. “That guy is ... something special. He's actually a talented player, just a little extra.”
No matter Burfict's intentions, the penalty pushed the Steelers into field-goal range. Then, as trainers attended to Brown, Jones exchanged words with several members of the opposition, including assistant coach (and former player) Joey Porter. Jones came out of the incident with the only penalty, bumping the Steelers even closer to a chip shot.
Debate the officials' work, if you will—Jones himself took to Instagram to rant. The fact of the matter is that the Bengals lost their cool when they needed most to keep it.
Of course, it won't soon be forgotten that Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers' final drive. He had been knocked from the game by a Burfict sack on the final play of the third quarter, a hit that jolted a disheartened Paul Brown Stadium to life. Among the loudest cheers of the night to that point came when Roethlisberger was carted to the locker room, his throwing arm immobile, debris flying in his direction from the stands.
That Burfict hit, unlike his final one, swung the momentum instantaneously in Cincinnati's direction. The Bengals scored their first points on the ensuing possession, via a Jeremy Hill touchdown run, then tacked on a field goal to pull within 15–10. Finally, improbably, they grabbed the lead when AJ McCarron hit A.J. Green for a 25-yard touchdown pass.
The Steelers still had 1:50 to answer, but Roethlisberger was glued to the sideline, jacket on over his pads. Landry Jones, his overwhelmed backup, promptly threw an interception that could have ended it.
“Obviously, we were a little dejected when they had the ball [and a chance] to run out the clock,” said Steelers TE Heath Miller. “But our defense made a play.”
Ryan Shazier, specifically. He had dodged a flag earlier on one of those "other" plays Lewis sounded like he was referencing—Shazier knocked out RB Gio Bernard, causing a fumble. (Shazier actually scooped up the ball and ran it back, but the refs had blown the play dead.)
This time, he ripped the ball from Jeremy Hill's hands, giving the Steelers the ball back with all three timeouts and still 1:23 to play.
And in came Roethlisberger.
“Coach came to me and asked me if I could do it,” Roethlisberger said, “and I said I would give it everything I've got.”
Said Miller: “I'm not a doctor, I didn't know the extent of his injury but when he didn't come back initially, I thought that was kind of it for the day.”
Roethlisberger certainly didn't have his fastball for that final possession. If he did, he would have been on the field seconds earlier, when Jones fired that interception. So the Steelers took what they could—passes of eight, seven, 10, three and 12 yards, with a Fitzgerald Toussaint four-yard run mixed in.
At one point, as Roethlisberger rolled to his right on a disjointed third-and-2 play, Brown had a step deep on backup CB Chris Lewis-Harris. Roethlisberger chose instead to check the ball down to Toussaint, perhaps the most obvious indication that he did not have the arm strength with which he is accustomed.
“He was able to go back in the game, but I don't know how far he was able to throw the ball,” Tomlin said of his QB. “That's why the last drive looked the way it looked.”
The nickle-and-dime approach still got Pittsburgh across midfield, with 22 seconds left. Burfict and Jones's penalties then gave the Steelers their most important 30 yards.
“This is probably one of the toughest games I've ever played,” said Hill, who apologized via Twitter for his costly fumble. “We just gave the game away. It's tough.”
The outcome will overshadow what was an impressive fourth-quarter effort from McCarron, who was on the brink of succeeding where Andy Dalton had failed. By the time the clock ran out, Martavis Bryant's remarkable (if a bit controversial) somersaulting, one-handed touchdown catch felt like it barely had taken place in the same game.
It was nearly three quarters of relative drudgery, with the Steelers coasting to an easy road playoff victory. Then it was fifteen minutes and 40 seconds of absolute mayhem, culminating in one of Cincinnati's most painful—and likely its most inexcusable—post-season meltdown yet.