The Cincinnati Bengals defense, the team's aspect that receives the least amount of attention, was unit on Sunday that made it all happen.
There's a certain arrogance with some people designed by their experiences to argue against every point made by someone else, determined to promote superior intellect (not unlike Ricardo Montalban) because it's natural to them and without it, the morning sun blisters their life perspectives. On Saturday we wrote that the key to Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers had very little to do with Cincinnati's offense, with a headline that read "Bengals victory over the Steelers will go through Cincinnati's defense."
And boy was it ever.
Cincinnati's defense held the Pittsburgh Steelers offense to 280 yards of total offense, a 14 percent third down conversion while forcing three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble), culminating one of Pittsburgh's worst offensive performances during Cincinnati's postseason-clinching victory over the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger had an especially poor outing, throwing multiple interceptions for the first time this season, while generating a season-low 58.6 passer rating. Only three of Pittsburgh's 15 possessions generated more than 20 yards and eight drives resulted in either a three and out or turnover.
"The difference in this game and the last time we played is third down," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "I don’t know what they were on third down but I thought we did an excellent job on third down today. I thought they just kept hanging in there."
Yet this is hardly new information.
The Cincinnati Bengals have surged defensively during the second half of the season.
In the span of six weeks, Cincinnati went from being ranked No. 20 to sixth in the NFL, where they stand following their 13-10 win over the Steelers on Sunday. Their gameplan was simple too. Punish the Steelers quarterback. After dropping Ben Roethlisberger 2.5 times, defensive tackle Geno Atkins reached 13.0 quarterback sacks on the season, tying a franchise record set by Eddie Edwards in 1983. Coy Bacon has the unofficial record prior to before the league kept tabs on quarterback sacks. Michael Johnson added another sack, giving him 9.5 on the season while five different players laid a hit into Roethlisberger at some point.
More impressively is Cincinnati's rushing defense, currently ranked No. 8, having held opposing offenses to less than 100 yards for five consecutive weeks with an average 2.5 yard/rush average combined in the previous three games against the Cowboys, Eagles and Steelers.
In the end the defense deflected a Bengals offense that began as a mediocre and liable unit, until a fourth quarter when Andy Dalton completed nine of 13 passes for 107 yards with A.J. Green generating five receptions for 78 yards, including the catch that put Cincinnati into makeable Josh Brown range. And that was possible from an errant Roethlisberger pass, after he was forced to scramble, intercepted by Reggie Nelson.
Bengals fans celebrate perhaps the most symbolic win and postseason berth in history with a win over a bitter rival, thanks to a defense that understood the stakes and punished the Steelers for trying to prevent it. It was a good day, indeed.