PITTSBURGH -- Heinz Field felt like history central Sunday in the NFL. But maybe not the way many would have expected.
On a day the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to the past and gloried in the 40th anniversay of their most famous play ever -- the Dec. 23, 1972 "Immaculate Reception" that launched the franchise's dynastic era -- it was the Cincinnati Bengals who, like those '72 Steelers, wound up shaking off a few decades of frustration and making a little magic of their own.
They've been playing in the NFL for parts of 45 years now, but the Bengals before Sunday had never put together back-to-playoff playoff trips, at least not in a pair of non-strike seasons. Even counting their consecutive playoff berths in 1981 and 1982 (a strike shortened nine-game regular season), it had been 30 years since the Bengals posted two straight winning records. But all that is gone now, wiped away by Cincinnati's gritty 13-10 defeat of the Steelers, which sent the Bengals (9-6) to the playoffs once again as an AFC wild card, and sent Pittsburgh (7-8) home to ponder a long offseason of reflection and remorse.
Riding a "relentless'' defense that ruined Pittsburgh's celebratory plans in almost every way, the youthful Bengals signaled that they have turned a page in their own franchise's history, snapping a five-game losing streak to their storied division rivals and winning in a stadium that has often provided one painful memory after another.
"It's a big win for the city of Cincinnati," said 10th-year Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, moments after clinching his fourth playoff trip in that span. "I know they just think that there's some complex. There's no complex. You just have to come, play and win. This group in there has very little history of anything. You play football out there, 60 minutes, their guys against our guys. That's what it comes down to."
What it came down to on this game day was defense. Pittsburgh's has the legacy and the Hall of Fame coordinator in the revered Dick LeBeau. But Cincinnati's aggressive and athletic defense is better, and no Bengal would trade coordinator Mike Zimmer and his refuse-to-yield coaching style for anything or anyone.
The offenses and play-calling decisions of both teams were dreadful for much of the game, but what a showing Zimmer's guys put together on defense, holding Pittsburgh to 2 of 14 on third downs (14 percent), forcing three turnovers and harrassing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early and often (four sacks and a bevy of pressures). The Bengals picked off Roethlisberger both early and late, scoring on a first-quarter 17-yard Leon Hall interception return, and setting up the game-winning 43-yard Josh Brown field goal in the final seconds on safety Reggie Nelson's interception 14 seconds before overtime would have commenced.
It was a tour de force performance by maybe the NFL's most off-the-radar defense, but that kind of label is bound to change, thanks in part to Sunday's outcome. With standout defensive tackle Geno Atkins leading the way with 2.5 sacks (he leads all NFL defensive tackles in that department), the Bengals hounded the Steelers into mistake after mistake, frustrating Mike Tomlin's team and ensuring it will be playoff-less in January for the first time since 2009.
"Like Zim always says, we've got a band of nobodies and nobody even knows who we are," said Atkins, whose play-making skills in the middle of the Cincinnati line are no secret to any of his opponents. "But we play as a unit. We thrive off (being under-recognized) and we try to play relentless. I think we're a very good defense, and each and every time we get an opportunity to showcase our abilities, you see it."
The dominant defense now on display in Cincinnati is actually a trend weeks in the making. The Bengals hit midseason at a disappointing 3-5 and were all but counted out of the AFC playoff race, but since then, they're 6-1, with their defense having allowed just 78 points over that seven-game span (11.1 points per game).
"We go as our front guys go," Lewis said. "It was a good day for them today. I thought they were relentless all day long, with the pressure starting the first series. That was big in the game because Ben moves around and holds the ball."
Lewis offered his post-game comments with a look of obvious relief on his face, because it was his beyond dubious call to try a 56-yard Brown field goal attempt with 3:22 remaining -- it was woefully short -- that set the Steelers up for a potential game-winning field goal drive of their own. Getting the ball back at its own 46 with 3:18 to play in a 10-10 game, Pittsburgh smelled victory and further life in the 2012 playoff chase. But the Bengals defense stiffened again, allowing just one Steelers first down, before Pittsburgh missed a 53-yard Shaun Suisham attempt of its own.
"I told them thanks for bailing me out, plain, flat and simple," said Lewis, who earlier in the game had passed up a possible 50-yard field goal attempt on Cincinnati's opening drive of the second half, having quarterback Andy Dalton surprisingly throw the ball on 4th-and-22 from the Steelers 33. "I made decisions to try to win the game today. It kind of backfired on me a little bit. We just had to keep playing aggressively.
"It's what we've got to do. I tell them all the time we're not backing down. We're going to keep coaching and playing aggressively. I can't do that and then put my tail between my legs. We've got to be aggressive."
The Bengals are going back to the playoffs -- a phrase rarely heard before -- because they have gone against the grain in today's NFL and decided to win with a defense-first mentality. So when the game was placed on the shoulders of Cincinnati's defense with Lewis' questionable 56-yard field goal decision, Atkins and the rest of the Bengals defense didn't flinch.
"It doesn't matter,'' he said. "(Bengals linebacker) Manny Lawson said it doesn't matter where the ball is. We're going to play stout, get a three-and-out, and get the ball back to the offense. Zim told us it was going to be on the defensive side to actually win this game, and we knew it was going to be a slugfest. It was a case of just having to see who was the better defense, us or the Steelers.
"It's really sweet. It felt good to silence the crowd. To get two opportunities to go to the Big Dance, with two winning seasons, we're real excited about that. We're excited about going to the playoffs again and trying to win a Super Bowl."
With Baltimore's 33-14 win at home against the reeling Giants later Sunday, the Ravens (10-5) wrapped up their second consecutive AFC North title, and likely are headed for the AFC's No. 4 seed and a first-round playoff date at home against the fifth-seeded Colts (10-5). The Bengals are locked into the AFC's No. 6 seed and will in all likelihood travel to third-seeded New England (11-4) in the first round.
Whenever they go, and whomever they face in the playoffs, the Bengals know they exorcised some ghosts by winning at Heinz Field on Sunday. Since drafting Andy Dalton in the second round of 2011, the Bengals had been 0-6 against the Steelers and Ravens, the twin bullies of the AFC North. Now they're 1-6, and face Baltimore at home next week, with a chance to build even more momentum heading into the postseason.
"It's good to get a win against them," said Dalton, meaning the Steelers. "Marvin Lewis said everybody has talked about how we haven't beaten the Steelers since we've been here. It feels good to get a win, especially coming down to the last play. It's a tough place to play here. For us to come here and get a win in this place is huge. Not only to get a win, but get us into the playoffs."
Added Atkins: "We knew we were going to have to go through either Pittsburgh or Baltimore, they've been either 1 or 2 the past couple years. To actually get where we wanted to go, we had to (upset) one of them. It's a good morale boost to go into their house and beat them. I've never beat them here in my three years."
There were a whole lot of historic firsts for Cincinnati here on Sunday. The Steelers' storied past was saluted, but the Bengals, a team that seems still on the rise, created a little late-game mystique of their own. It was no "Immaculate Reception," but then again, who can tell where one very surprising win might lead? In football, the ball is always capable of bouncing in unexpected ways.