There were 129 plays from scrimmage (59 by the Bengals), 13 punts (seven by the Bengals) and 12 kickoffs. There were 80-yard touchdowns, 50-yard passes and a fake punt. And at the end of the day, it was one fumble. Issuing talking points in which every play is the culmination of a greater story is fine. Respectable. I'm just not subscribing to that theory this week. Pre-fumble, the Bengals had relative control. Post-fumble, the foundation cracked.
With 12:51 remaining in the fourth quarter, quarterback Andy Dalton read his keys and held onto the football during the read-option. With the impeccable timing of humbling football gods, the ball nudged Jeremy Hill's thigh just enough to twist the football out of Dalton's grip. Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats recovered the football on Cincinnati's 24-yard line and Pittsburgh took a 28-21 lead several plays later. The Steelers followed up Le'Veon Bell's 13-yard run, with 11:34 remaining in the fourth, with Heath Miller's two-point conversion.
From that point forward, Cincinnati's collapse continued. Granted it wasn't the collapse in '06 against San Diego or the collapse in '10 against Buffalo. Yet... it feels more significant.
One thing led to another.
"At that point they get points off the turnover, scored a touchdown, and then they scored pretty quick after that," said Dalton after the game. "You can’t have a play like that at that point in the game."
The offense generated a first down but a Mohamed Sanu illegal block sent Cincinnati back 10 yards. They were unable to convert the eventual third and nine. Kevin Huber angled a 52-yard punt toward the right sidelines, skipping out of bounds at the six-yard line. On the ensuing play, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up Martavis Bryant on a 94-yard touchdown pass to take a 35-21 lead. Cincinnati went three-and-out and Huber's 26-yard punt gave Pittsburgh the ball at midfield. On the sixth-play of the possession, Bell scored another touchdown (this time from 22 yards out) to take a 42-21 lead.
It was already over. Hell, it was over during The Fumble. A fumble that running back Jeremy Hill took blame for.
"[Dalton is] doing his best job to get the right read and making sure everything is proper," said Hill via ESPN, "so I've got to make sure it's easy for him to get the ball in there and to keep it or do what he needs to do with the football. He has a ton on his plate. So we running backs, receivers and tight ends, we've got to do everything to make his job easier."
After the fumble, Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions against a Bengals defense that looked more like a Chuck Bresnahan squad that spent most of their time hanging on for dear life. After the fumble, Cincinnati's defense allowed 168 yards to the Steelers on those three possessions, including six first downs and an eventual deficit that even A.J. Green's 200-yard plus performance couldn't overcome. After the fumble, Cincinnati's offense conceded with three consecutive punts before a fumble gave Pittsburgh the football back for a victory-formation knee.
Cincinnati heads to Cleveland (who beat the Bengals 24-3 in Cincinnati), then they host the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football and then the team heads to Pittsburgh for a regular season finale against the Steelers. How much will Sunday's loss (and the way that the team lost) linger?
"At that point, they had a big lead in the fourth quarter and made some big plays," said Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. "The game wasn't like that. For three quarters of the game, it was a tight football game, and we had the lead. One quarter of football doesn't define our season, and we don’t worry about the end score of the game. We worry about we won, and that’s the only thing they keep track of. Winning the next three football games by a half a point or 30, I don't care. We have to win and put ourselves in a position where we want to be."
"This is like playoff football now," said cornerback Adam Jones. "That is December in the NFL. Everyone is upset about this game. This team has a number of leaders. We will get this figured out."