The Bengals had no answers for Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. (Don Wright/AP)
A funny thing happened on the way to the Pittsburgh Steelers' demise, and the Cincinnati Bengals' AFC North coronation. The Bengals, who came into Sunday night's game at Heinz Field with a shot at the AFC's No. 2 seed, lost 30-20 to a Steelers team all but eliminated from the 2013 playoff push. Cincinnati fell due to a baffling series of special teams miscues, and quarterback Andy Dalton's inability to get things going on offense until the result was already basically decided.
"Good AFC North win for us at home," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Really kind of a team victory. I thought we rode the wave that our special teams provided early on in the first half of the game. It was a really good effort by a lot of people on all three phases -- what was required tonight against a good team. We appreciate the opportunity, and it's good to get a win."
The 6-8 Steelers can only wonder what might have been had they not started the season so poorly -- they lost their first four games, but have taken four of their last six, and have to hope for a number of strange things to happen if they're to sneak into the postseason. Most likely, it will mark the first time in Tomlin's tenure -- and the first time since 1999-2000 -- that the franchise misses the playoffs for a second straight season.
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"I wouldn't say that everything worked," the coach concluded. "It was far from perfect. We've yet to play a perfect game, and tonight would be included in that. But tonight, obviously, we did do enough to win, and we had some splash plays."
Cincinnati couldn't match those splashes. Dalton threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes against a defense thought to be too old and too ineffective, but Pittsburgh had opened up a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, and a 30-7 lead at the end of the third. The early lead came about because of two gaffes involving Bengals punter Kevin Huber. At the end of Cincinnati's first drive, Huber was unable to handle a snap made errant by the wind, and was called down at his own one-yard line. Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell rumbled in for a touchdown two plays later. And near the end of the first quarter, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown returned a Huber punt 67 yards for a touchdown. Adding insult to injury, Huber was decimated by a block from Pittsburgh reserve linebacker Terence Garvin, and suffered a fractured jaw on the play.
Brown also caught a first-quarter touchdown from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose streak of 207 straight passing attempts without an interception was broken with 12:32 left in the third quarter, when cornerback Adam Jones came down with an underthrow intended for Emmanuel Sanders.
That wasn't enough for Dalton, whose relatively limited physical palette left him short of what was needed to overcome those early deficits. He managed just 230 yards in the air on 44 passing attempts, and the two fourth-quarter touchdown passes came at the end of drives that took a total of 23 plays and ate up almost 12 minutes of game clock. That's a winning formula for a team with a lead, but not for an offense desperate to put points on the board by any means necessary.
"We didn't make anything happen," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in summary. "We didn't make any plays or create any opportunities to make plays early in the game. Obviously, with the miscues we had, we put ourselves behind right away. We played behind the field position deal almost the entire first half, and we really made it hard on ourselves."
Moreover, Cincinnati's usually strong defense was unable to contend with a Steelers offense subject to its own fits and starts throughout the season. Roethlisberger was sacked just once on the night, and though he threw for just the one touchdown to Brown and 191 total yards, no more was required because of the earlier special teams blunders on the Bengals' part. Pittsburgh played a reductive style of offense through most of the second half -- Bell led the team with 57 yards on 24 carries, and the Steelers ran the ball 36 total times and had the ball for about three more minutes than did Dalton's team.
The Bengals are still a nine-win team, but the disappointment for them is that there could be so much more. New England's loss to the Miami Dolphins earlier in the day, combined with Cincinnati's Oct. 6 win over the Patriots, gave the Bengals the chance to control their own destiny as a possible second conference seed.
Now, they are not even assured of an AFC North title -- they must wait and see if the Detroit Lions can beat the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, and bring them closer to that goal. The Bengals took two of their five defeats in overtime, and they're desperately searching for more than the wild-card berths they've had in each of the past two seasons. This season has been a year for potential growth and development, and in that regard, Sunday night's loss was a significant step backward.
The division may come down to the Week 17 matchup between the Bengals and the 7-6 Ravens. And Cincinnati, who dropped one of those overtime defeats to Baltimore on Nov. 10, could still be on the outside looking in if the Ravens win out.