Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
The Cincinnati Bengals have clinched their second postseason berth in back to back seasons for the first time in 30 years with a symbolic win over the Steelers.
Win it and you’re in it.
The encompassing theme for the Bengals, for nearly a month that’s targeted an eventual Week 16 date, rewarded the victor with postseason opportunities. And for the Bengals, shedding the skin of a psychological disadvantage building among core players highlighting a young movement designed to change perceptions.
And they did. Though not easily.
At first it was the same ho-hum Bengals making the same bone-headed mental errors that’s identified so many head-lowering moments, largely from an offense that offered a lethargic outing in what could be defined as their most symbolic game with drops, fumbles, piss-poor throws, interception and the tendency to repeat the same depressions that every Bengals team has proven since the team’s 1988 squad. It was an offensive gameplan that idealized conservative check-down passes, short hitch-routes and rainbow bombs down the sidelines that often had no probability for completion, with nothing threatening anything in the 15-20 yard range.
In truth it was only asked of the offense to do just enough to keep pace with the Steelers, relying on a defense that opened the scoring with a Leon Hall interception return for a touchdown, forced several three and out situations and sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger multiple times.
Yet it wasn’t just the offense that made the mistakes, and they were plentiful. Jason Allen wiped out a 62-yard punt return in the first quarter, turning great field position and a scoring opportunity into an eventual punt after one first down. Early in the second quarter Dan Skuta’s running into the kicker allowed Pittsburgh a fourth and inches opportunity, which they converted, sustaining a possession that eventually led to a missed chip-shot field goal. On Cincinnati’s first possession of the second quarter, Dalton made a poor (and unwise attempt) over the middle to a covered Andrew Hawkins that led to an interception. However the turnover weren’t often costly, largely due to an enthusiastic Bengals pass rush that generated four quarterback sacks.
A.J. Green’s fumble early in the fourth quarter at the Steelers 28-yard line collapsed another scoring drive. Though it didn’t result into points for Pittsburgh, but neutralized a potential scoring opportunity for Cincinnati by negating an offensive possession that was well within Josh Brown’s range.
Though Marvin Lewis’ decision to attempt a 56-yard Josh Brown field goal may have been the most costly, allowing Pittsburgh to open at their own 46-yard line with 3:18 remaining in the game, it wasn’t. Had the Bengals decided to punt the football, with Kevin Huber crushing the football in such a way we haven’t seen during his career, the Steelers, playing as mediocre as the Bengals have throughout most of the afternoon, would have been forced into a long field – even if the punt resulted in a touchback.
Yet the Bengals defense once again bailed out the offense, forcing the Steelers to attempt a 53-yard field goal that fell short, giving the Bengals optimal field position. Unfortunately, Cincinnati was unable to capitalize, trying to convert on a deep throw on third and one from midfield (you only need one yard, Andy).
Pittsburgh pushed, moved the football downfield momentarily when a poorly thrown Ben Roethlisberger interception rested into the loving embrace of safety Reggie Nelson with 24 seconds remaining at the Bengals 44-yard line
In perhaps the most critical play in his career, Andy Dalton gently guides an intermediate out, where A.J. Green hauled in the 21-yard reception near the right sidelines at the Steelers 25-yard line. Josh Brown, with my heart pounding and soiled pants drooling, connects with the game winning 43-yard field goal, beating the Steelers 13-10.
For the first time in 30 years, the Bengals will head back to the postseason in consecutive years. Celebrate, Cincinnati. Celebrate.