It wasn't supposed to play out like this.
Cincinnati's defense started the game playing to the choir of those that believe that this team can stare down any opponent. By holding the Steelers offense to only 12 yards on eight plays during Pittsburgh's opening two possessions, the Bengals defense force two punts with only one first down allowed. Offensively the Bengals were strong out of the gate, registering 72 yards on 15 plays, moving the football with relative ease during their opening two possessions.
Yet from the very beginning Cincinnati self-destructs their efforts to make any impression as to whether they deserve mention for the AFC North championship this season.
During the Bengals opening possession, Jermaine Gresham's touchdown to take a first quarter lead is negated after A.J. Green is called for a false start. A handful of plays later, a delay of game forces Mike Nugent to re-kick a field goal that he originally made, watching his efforts turn sour with blocked kick at the line of scrimmage. Even Cincinnati's second possession explored the glory of production until an offensive holding on Kyle Cook stalled their drive that was, at this point, on Pittsburgh's side of the field. Cincinnati is forced to punt.
The defense gladly joined in Cincinnati's team effort at self-destruction, though on a much smaller scale. A 45-yard Antonio Brown reception led to a three-yard Rashard Mendenhall touchdown. On Pittsburgh's ensuing possession, a 45-yard pass interference led to Mendenhall five-yard touchdown run.
And to make matters worse, special teams made it a trifecta. Following Mike Nugent's blocked field goal attempt, Brandon Tate fumbled the football on a kickoff that led to Pittsburgh's third touchdown. And just before the end of the first half, Antonio Brown returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown (Merry Christmas on the no-call block in the back), giving the Steelers a 28-7 half time lead. Now that we couldn't have absolutely expected it. Cincinnati has been outscored 119-39 in the second quarter this season after the first half.
It wasn't supposed to play out like this. But it did.
And the fuel that fires Cincinnati's second half comebacks was completely depleted. James Harrison beat Andrew Whitworth on a quarterback sack early during the third quarter with Cincinnati registering 20 yards on seven plays, with two punts capping off Cincinnati's first two possessions. Though Cincinnati's defense forced the Steelers into a three and out, they followed that gutsy performance by allowing the Steelers to drive down their throats on a ten-play 93-yard touchdown drive that was highlighted with a 27-yard run Mendenhall run up the middle, capped by Mike Wallace's bubble screen with the wide receiver breaking at least two tackles on his way for a 19-yard touchdown.
Even when the defense was in third and ten, Ben Roethlisberger, under intense pressure, fires a strike to Antonio Brown on a deep slant with Kelly Jennings covering, picking up 22 yards on the play and the first down as the third quarter expired.
It was so bad that the Bengals feared the assault on Andy Dalton, electing to bring Bruce Gradkowski into the game to clear Cincinnati's most disappointing performance of the season.