Heading into Sunday's game, the Cincinnati Bengals had an opportunity to slide into the second seed for the AFC playoff picture, thanks to a Miami Dolphins win over the New England Patriots. A win would also be the first of a two-part scenario in which the Bengals could win the AFC North Championship in conjunction with a Baltimore Ravens loss on Monday Night Football in Detroit. Take the piece of paper highlighting postseason scenarios and put that in the trash can, bury the trash can and then burn the shovel.
It didn't go well.
Hell. It was the worst possible start that we've seen this year... and we've seen a lot. But it wasn't entirely unpredictable. This is the same Bengals squad that shrivels when the lights encapsulate the field and the national audience, who hasn't seen much of what we have over the years, confirms their personal impressions while disputing our own talking points. The Bengals are not unlike the kid in speech class that loses bodily functions when he stands before the podium in prime time. It's too big for them.
Special teams started awfully, arguably the catalyst of such a troubling deficit. The defense couldn't tackle and offered even less of a pass rush; when tasked with giving the offense the ball back in the fourth quarter, they choked. Offensively they needed time to get into sync, largely because receivers were dropping passes while Andy Dalton was desperately escaping pressure so that he could spend at least one more Christmas with his wife, Jordan.
It just started awfully.
With 10:47 remaining in the first quarter, Kevin Huber dropped the snap on a punt near the Bengals two-yard line. Contact was initiated before Huber was pulled down and tackled into the end zone, giving Pittsburgh the ball on Cincinnati's one-yard line. Two plays later, Le'Veon Bell stretched out towards the right edge and hammered home a touchdown, giving Pittsburgh a 7-0 lead with 9:58 remaining in the first. I'd rather have had the safety.
On the offense's ensuing possession, Andre Smith was flagged for a false start, putting Cincinnati at their own 14-yard line and into a first and 15 situation. Kyle Cook was unable to slow Ziggy Hood on a stunt, who would sack Andy Dalton for a sack and force the Bengals to punt.
The defense were missing tackles and failing to generate pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, brewing ingredients for a predictable disaster. Pittsburgh easily converted a fourth and four with 3:32 remaining in the first on a dump off to running back Le'Veon Bell, with Vontaze Burfict pulling double-duty by trailing Bell and monitoring Roethlisberger. On the next play, Roethlisberger sat in the pocket against a two-man pass rush with nine players in coverage. After navigating through time and space, Antonio Brown surprisingly found a gap in the nine-man zone coverage for a 12-yard touchdown reception to give Pittsburgh a 14-0 lead with 2:16 remaining in the first quarter. After two possessions, Roethlisberger had completed seven straight passes for 60 yards passing with a passer rating of 142.0.
Cincinnati's offense wasn't much help. After going three-and-out on their third possession of the game, Antonio Brown returned the ensuing punt 67 yards for a touchdown, giving the Steelers a 21-0 lead with 1:12 remaining in the first quarter. It's the first time that the Bengals have allowed 21 points in the first quarter of a game since Sept. 28, 1986 against the Chicago Bears.
That was the FIRST quarter. That was essentially the game.
It was depressing. It was not unlike children facing punishment by men that actually believed that they belonged. The Bengals? No. Players were dropping like flies. Despite no flag being thrown for helmet-to-helmet contact, Kevin Huber's jaw was fractured during the punt return. Brandon Ghee was leveled during the same play and minutes later, James Harrison was pulled from the game with a concussion. Jermaine Gresham left with a hip in the fourth and Dre Kirkpatrick was helped off the field with a leg injury late in the fourth, but returned on the defense's following possession.
It was depressing with all of the makings of a familiar massacre against a familiar opponent throughout the series' history.
God love the Bengals for trying. With the leads from a car battery gripping the coldest regions of the nearly deceased body, they sold hope. A Brandon Tate 52-yard kickoff return opened Cincinnati's fourth possession at the Steelers 47-yard line. Dalton completed three of four passes for 32 yards, eventually leading to a Giovani Bernard touchdown, reducing Pittsburgh's lead 24-7 with 5:19 remaining in the second quarter.
The start of a comeback?
The defense had other ideas. Pittsburgh compiled a 10-play drive on their ensuing possession that wiped out four minutes and left 1:14 on the clock in the second quarter after Shaun Suisham converted a 45-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 27-7 lead. Despite taking a timeout on the possession to give their offense time to score points before half time, the Bengals abandoned the idea after a second down scramble, a wide receiver screen and a running back screen.
Both teams began the third by applying an encore performance from the first half. Cincinnati opened the third quarter from their own 37-yard line after Brandon Tate's 26-yard kickoff return, but an Andrew Whitworth offensive hold put the Bengals behind schedule on second and 20 from their own 27-yard line. Jermaine Gresham powered his way through defenders attempting to convert third and 15, but lost the football as he fell a yard short of the first down.
Despite an Adam Jones interception a handful of plays later at the Bengals two-yard line with 12 minutes remaining in the third, the offense went five plays and were forced to punt after A.J. Green was unable to haul in the football on third and five -- it was a little high, but someone that many of us identify as "great", Green doesn't have the most reliable hands sometimes. Regardless, Mike Nugent punted the football 43 yards to the Steelers 37-yard line with 10:37 remaining in the third quarter.
Though the special teams issues have calmed down since Brown's first quarter punt return, the issues facing this depleted defense is only accelerating a larger problem. Pittsburgh mounted a nine-play drive with three first downs, taking a 30-7 lead with a Shaun Suisham 26-yarder with 6:40 remaining in the third.
The Bengals pulled to within two possessions (30-14) with over 14 minutes remaining in the fourth on a Tyler Eifert one-yard touchdown reception, concluding their best possession of the night going 63 yards on 13 plays while consuming 7:09 on the drive.
After forcing the Steelers to punt, the Bengals offense resumed their production with ten minutes remaining while only down by two possessions. Cincinnati strung together a ten-play drive, capped by a Marvin Jones 13-yard touchdown but were unable to capitalize on the two-point conversion, leading a ten-point deficit with 5:46 remaining in the game. Unfortunately a third down conversion successfully allowed Pittsburgh to wipe out over three minutes and ensure Cincinnati's comeback would fail.
Baltimore will play the Lions in Detroit and a Lions win will maintain Cincinnati's two-game lead with two games remaining. Cincinnati will host the Minnesota Vikings next week.