After the Bengals vs Steelers game here are seven things I think in reaction to the game.
1. This game was a comedy of errors
At the end of the game, the Bengals proved to be the better team but this game could have gone down as a loss for the Steelers or the Bengals. Both teams shot themselves in the foot throughout this game and continued to blow chances to put up more points on the board. The Bengals blew far more chances with several possessions starting near midfield or in Steelers' territory.
Pittsburgh blew their share of chances in this game too, and frankly, either team could have ran away with this one if not for so many bad plays, penalties and turnovers. The saving grace for the Bengals throughout was the defense, but this was still a game that could have led to Cincy being blown out, if the Steelers weren't playing so poorly.
2. AFC North is now Bengals' to lose
Pittsburgh was a mess with Big Ben coming back from injury and Le'Veon Bell leaving early with a leg injury. They couldn't get anything going on offense after their first touchdown drive, even with the Bengals' offense continuously putting the Bengals' defense in bad spots, the Steelers couldn't take advantage.
All said, the Bengals won and the division is theirs to lose. They hold a 3.5-game lead with nine games left, and the Steelers are incapable of catching them if Bell is out for significant time. This division race is effectively over as long as the Bengals avoid an onslaught of injuries.
3. Offensive line was horrendous
Adding to the above, this was a joke of a performance by one of the best offensive lines in football. They simply couldn't handle the Steelers' pass rush, which is good, but shouldn't make the Bengals look as bad as they did. Right tackle Andre Smith was a real mess, and his drop off this year is really concerning now that we're nearly halfway through the regular season.
As a whole, this unit really underperformed in this game and was a big reason the offense had just six points through 3.5 quarters. This unit cannot have this kind of performances against teams like the Broncos and even the Rams (each of those teams entered Week 8 in the top 3 in sacks). This unit is too good to be the reason this team doesn't reach its ultimate goal, but that's what will happen if this happens against better teams.
4. Offense clicked when it counted most
For 3.5 quarters, the offense was a disaster and should have put the Bengals in an unrecoverable position to overcome in Pittsburgh late in the fourth quarter. A terrible interception by Andy Dalton, dropped passes, penalties, and not giving Giovani Bernard the ball enough led to the Bengals having just six points on the board in the fourth quarter.
But the offense began clicking late in the game as Dalton started finding his rhythm, Bernard ripped off some big plays and the line began slowing down Pittsburgh's pass rush. Dalton's pick kept Cincinnati from putting up more points, but the offense did get into the red zone twice in the final quarter after getting there just once the first three quarters.
5. Much-maligned defense stepped up
As mentioned in the first point, the Steelers had plenty of chances to blow this game open and take control, but the defense stepped up again and again to not only keep Pittsburgh from scoring, but also put Cincinnati's offense in great position to put points on the board.
It helped that Bell missed most of this game with a leg injury. Still, holding a Ben Roethlisberger-lead team, not to mention Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and DeAngelo Williams, to just 10 points in their own stadium while Cincy's own offense was nonexistent speaks volumes to how well this unit played.
It also showed that this offensive-focused Bengals team can have bad days and still win against good teams. That's a good sign this Bengals team may be the one to break through in the playoffs.
6. No receiver not named Green stepped up
One of the biggest themes of the Bengals' 6-0 start has been receivers not named A.J. Green stepping up each week to make a big impact in each win. It's been mostly Marvin Jones, occasionally Mohamed Sanu and even Brandon Tate once. Those three combined for just four catches for 22 yards in this game, and the only Bengals players to catch more than two passes were Green and tight end Tyler Eifert.
Eifert finished with four catches for 39 yards while Green caught 11 for 118 and a score while both had several dropped passes. Those two can't be the only guys that come up big every week, and it almost cost the Bengals in this one not having another receiver step up.
7. Injuries hurt, especially on a short week
The Bengals lost several players to injuries throughout this game after making it through the first eight weeks without any major setbacks. Star defensive end Carlos Dunlap suffered a shoulder injury early in the fourth quarter but was able to return. Adam Jones left temporarily after he got dinged before halftime hitting the ground hard on a pass deflection. He walked off field with trainers after stayed down after the play, but eventually returned.
Starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga suffered a calf injury in the first half and missed the rest of the game. It's hard to think Maualuga can play this Thursday against the Browns after being ruled out rather quickly, but he was seen jumping up and down on the sidelines when the Bengals scored the game-winning touchdown, though in street clothes. Even if it's not too serious, he still has just four days to recover before kickoff in primetime against Cleveland.
Even though Dunlap was able to play through his injury initially, it's possible swelling in the coming days could cause him to be limited or even miss Thursday's date with the Browns.
Hopefully that's not the case, but any minor bump and bruise is notable when it comes on the heels of a short week.