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Steelers delay Bengals' AFC North championship with 33-20 win

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The Cincinnati Bengals failed to clinch a postseason berth on Sunday after losing 33-20 to the Steelers.

John Grieshop/Getty Images

It was emotional.

Early during Sunday's contest, players from opposing teams shoved and jawed following virtually every play. There were swings, helmet grabs, jostling and even concussions. Blood will be spilled was the mantra heading into Sunday's game.

This came to pass during Pittsburgh's 33-20 win over the Bengals.

However, the leading storyline was Cincinnati's injuries. Quarterback Andy Dalton suffered a thumb injury midway through the first quarter. Tight end Tyler Eifert exited under concussion protocols around the same time. Safety George Iloka suffered a groin injury, initially listed as doubtful and eventually downgraded to out.  Vontaze Burfict was pulled out on several occasions regarding a head/neck area before leaving for the locker room late in the third quarter. He did return.

By this point, you've lost a quarterback with the potential of earning a spot in the Pro Bowl, the player with the most touchdown receptions in the league, a starting safety, a starting linebacker and that doesn't even include Adam Jones, who patrolled the sidelines during an unseasonably warm December afternoon.

Are those excuses?

No. Of course, not. Games are still played; they can't be replayed because of an unfavorable circumstance that negatively impacted your afternoon. Cincinnati's defense failed -- especially on third down. Did anyone mention Health Miller this week? Pittsburgh dominated time of possession, and had significantly more plays by halftime -- Cincinnati began balancing that out slightly toward the end, largely because they were playing uptempo in a horrendously futile effort to generate a comeback.

Once Dalton and Eifert departed, the offense struggled to find its rhythm. Granted, AJ McCarron entered the game as a backup with only a limited number of snaps. Clearly his 66-yard touchdown throw to A.J. Green was monstrous; yet, his pick-six to William Gay during Cincinnati's opening possession in the second half, expanding their lead over the Bengals 23-7, was equally disastrous. Another intercepted pass from McCarron caused Reggie Nelson's interception just moments prior to result in no points; Nelson's interception tied a franchise mark for most interceptions in consecutive games.

However, the injuries on offense were like a flooded engine during the climax of a horror movie. Alternatively, Pittsburgh's offense wasn't necessarily crushing the Bengals, they kept momentum and sustained drives, eventually dumping a 33-spot (26 on defense) on the league's top scoring defense.

Yet the story of the game was two-fold: 1) injuries and 2) fighting. The nastiness started early, with a midfield scrum prior to kickoff, bleeding over into offsetting personal fouls between Dre Kirkpatrick and Antonio Brown on the second play of the game. On the following down, more intensity broke out when linebacker Vontaze Burfict dropped DeAngelo Williams and was shoved off the tackle by David DeCastro. Even Leon Hall and A.J. Green, players who tend to keep their emotions in check, lashed out what they perceived as injustices. Perhaps due to reputation, Burfict felt like he was the center of most scuffles.

Regardless, the Bengals drop to 10-3 and fail (for the week) to secure a postseason berth. Had the Chiefs or Jets lost, the Bengals would have clinched a postseason berth regardless of their loss.

Cincinnati heads to San Francisco next week and Dalton will not be playing. It's time to see what McCarron can do.