There are plenty of games in the National Football League that deserve recognition. We're not completely close-minded enough to sit upon our castle surrounded by a moot occupied by sharks with friggin' lasers, demanding that every Bengals game be selected in a subjective ranking of the best games from 2012. Seven games were decided by more than a touchdown and the Bengals lost four additional games, though that wouldn't factor when ranking a win.
The NFL Network counted down the top-20 games of 2012, and in fairness, most of the games listed were extremely entertaining in one form or another. But what a disappointment that the network excluded the Cincinnati Bengals 13-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 16.
SETTING THE TABLE.
The Steelers entered week 16 with a five-game winning streak against the Bengals, who haven't beaten the Steelers since 2009. Questions about Cincinnati's ability to win the big games reached an all-time high, needing to beat the Steelers to clinch a postseason berth in consecutive seasons for the first time in 30 years -- and only the second time in franchise history.
PLAY OF THE GAME #1.
As expected the fierce defensive struggle lived up to its billing early. Ten minutes into the first quarter, Pittsburgh only generated one first down and the Bengals accumulated four. Both quarterbacks were sacked at least once and eight of the game's first 21 plays from scrimmage gained two yards or less (not including the four incomplete passes by Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger combined). Fans were symptomatic with the hard hitting going on at Heinz Field on December 23.
Naturally it would be the defense that broke the goose eggs on the scoreboard. With four yards needed to convert a third from the Steelers 13-yard line with 2:23 remaining in the first quarter, Pittsburgh came out in 12-personnel (one running back, two tight ends) with Roethlisberger in shotgun. Cincinnati counters with the nickel, dropping cornerback Leon Hall over tight end Heath Miller. Roethlisberger kept his eyes to his right, waiting for Miller to break in after leaning out towards the sidelines. Hall's technique kept his hips squared to his target, but the technician anticipated Miller cutting inside. Roethlisberger didn't anticipate Hall's anticipation and released the football. The Bengals took a seven-point lead with 2:15 remaining in the first quarter.
Steelers rebound late.
Neither offense generated any momentum. At various junctures, someone would sustain a possession, but failed to capitalize. Following Hall's pick-six, the Steelers pieced together a 79-yard drive on 15 plays, but failed to convert after Shaun Suisham pushed a 24-yard attempt wide left. A Kevin Huber 54-yard punt with under six minutes remaining in the second quarter pinned the Steelers at their own two-yard line. It was a game of field position that benefited Cincinnati, requiring only a field goal on the ensuing possession following Pittsburgh's punt with 1:57 remaining in the first half to take a 10-0 lead.
Then the big play strike.
Ben Roethlisberger takes the shotgun snap with 1:18 remaining in the second quarter from Pittsburgh's 40-yard line. Adam Jones, covering Antonio Brown, horribly bites on the receiver's false step out, which allows Brown to cut upfield with at least five yards of separation.
Where was the help?
The Bengals appeared to play cover-one with Crocker keeping an eye on the slot receiver while Reggie Nelson started to blitz, but hung out underneath. Adam Jones was on an island and Brown simply won.
It also appeared that someone was playing the wrong coverage.
Why are there three defenders forming a triangle within five yards of each other? It also appears at this point that the Bengals were playing cover zero (no one deep) because after the slot slips behind Maualuga (who is clearly in zone coverage), there's no one save for Crocker. It's also possible that they were playing Cover Three, with Hall still pedaling back, despite his receiver breaking off towards the sidelines.
Either way, you win some, you lose some. The Bengals lost this one, allowing a 60-yard Antonio Brown touchdown, reducing Cincinnati's lead to three points as the first half concluded.
Sacks, fumbles, interceptions, long-distance field goal attempts, insane fourth-and-22 attempts, and a Suisham 40-yard field goal with 4:05 remaining in the third quarter kept the game tied at ten deep into the fourth quarter. Hearts are beating, fingernails disappearing and nerves exploding bodies into paralysis.
An Issac Redman 13-yard reception, Vontaze Burfict delay of game and incomplete pass, led the Steelers to their own 29-yard line with :24 remaining in regulation. Feeling the internal clock tick away, Roethlisberger eventually rolls out to the right, scanning the field while keeping the football in a cocked position. Approaching the line of scrimmage, flipping his non-throwing hand to tell a receiver which direction to go, Roethlisberger floats the football well over Mike Wallace's head into the loving embrace of safety Reggie Nelson. Nelson returned the football 10 yards to the Steelers 46-yard line.
Still a distance to go with only :14 seconds remaining. Dalton, also familiar with the No. 14 (providence, baby!), with cold determination, stands in the pocket and beautifully drops a perfect throw to A.J. Green, just prior to the wide receiver falling out of bounds. Josh Brown boots the game-winning 43-yard field goal and the Bengals return to the postseason.
TOP-20 GAME OF THE YEAR?
We identified the game as one of the most symbolic wins during the Marvin Lewis era, largely for this version of the Cincinnati Bengals overcoming Steelers intimidation while doing something the franchise hasn't done in 30 years. Was it one of the best games of 2012 in the NFL?
Asking that question to a Bengals fan will invite enthusiastic responses. So we're a biased bunch, replaying that game while at work with fingers interlocked behind our collective heads.
It wasn't a pretty game. Neither offense was particularly impressive. There were turnovers, penalties, missed chip-shot field goals and just awful decision making. It was a defensive slobberknocker, which doesn't vote favorably in a league obsessed with pretty finesse offenses.
That being said it was a hell of a game with significant implications, both symbolic and for the postseason. And that alone deserves more recognition.