The Pittsburgh Steelers Wild Card win over the Bengals will go down as one of the most intense, drama filled games in Steelers playoff history. Recording how the Steelers arrived at their 18-16 win over the Bengals represents something of a challenge.
- The underlying story between the Steelers and Bengals morphed and evolved throughout the game.
For the first three quarters, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati seemed to be weaving a tale to be won by “The Ones Who Hit the Hardest” (with a nod to the book of the same title.) Later in the game, the thread took on new life. It was a game of backups pushing back from poor performances to propel their team ahead.
Finally, the game came down to an age-old value from outside the gridiron: Discipline.
Steelers Wild Card vs. Bengals I: The Ones Who Hit the Hardest
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens might have the reputations of being the AFC North’s bruisers, but the Cincinnati Bengals put the rest of the division on notice that they will no longer concede that status.
- For several years now the Bengals have looked strong in the regular season, only to get “pimp slapped” in the postseason, in the words of fellow Steelers scribe Ivan Cole.
No such characterizations need apply to the 2015 Cincinnati Bengals. This team has heart, this team can play with fire, and this team wanted it. (Keep that later point in mind, as it might have contributed to Cincinnati’s undoing.)
- The Steelers and Bengals have two of the NFL’s most prolific aerial offenses, yet the two teams slugged it out.
The Steelers went into the game without DeAngelo Williams, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley refused to bat an eye, giving Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman a total of 28 carries. But the physicality of the game was far from limited to the line of scrimmage.
- The game featured hard hits downfield on both sides of the ball
- Both receivers and defensive backs physically challenged each other
- 7 total fumbles show just how hotly both sides contested each and every play
In the words of Steelers standard-bearer Mike Tomlin “I thought we both represented the AFC North and what the AFC North is about tonight.”
True indeed, but physicality takes its toll, and the Steelers and Bengals Wild Card contest was notable as much for which players left the field as for what happened on the field. The Steelers lost Will Johnson and Robert Golden. The Bengals lost Reggie Nelson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Gio Bernard and saw numerous others helped off the field.
And for just under 45 minutes of play, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they would win by weathering the battle of attrition better than the Bengals. But that changed.
Steelers Wild Card vs. Bengals II: Backup Bounces Back
The penultimate play of the 4th quarter saw Vontaze Burfict sack Ben Roethlisberger, driving his shoulder in to the turf. Ben Roethlisberger was slow to get up. He was helped to the sideline. He got put on the chat.
Bengals fans threw trash at an injured Roethlisberger worthy of 1980’s Cleveland Browns Dawg Pound shame.
- Trash or no trash, the sack/injury of Ben Roethlisberger gave his counterpart A.J. McCarron new life.
Prior to that point, McCarron had fumbled several times, found himself picked off by Antwon Blake, and was on the receiving end of sacks by Cameron Heyward, Jarvis Jones, and James Harrison. McCarron was not having a good night.
But give the kid credit – he shucked it off and only needed four plays to lead his team to its first touchdown, bringing the score to 15-7 and putting the game’s outcome very much in doubt.
In his first post-season series, Landry Jones showed why the Steelers would be wise to strongly consider bring Bruce Gradkowski back next spring. While Jones didn’t make any critical mistakes on his first drive, he also only moved the ball 22 yards and barely burned off more than 3 minutes. The Steelers needed more from Jones. Jones didn’t deliver.
- Had things worked out differently, Steelers fans would not and should not have been able to finger Roethlsiberger’s injury as an excuse.
The Steelers had their starter for 3 quarters, and the Bengals played their back up quarterback for four. As it was, McCarron led his team on a long field goal drive that put the Bengals within 5.
An ineffective Jones gave the ball back to the Bengals with 3:28 left, and McCarron managed to both burn up a 1:28 of that time AND give his team a 1 point lead. Landry Jones threw a terrible interception with 1:36 remaining….
Steelers Wild Card vs. Bengals II: Of Discipline & “Now or Never”
…Normally when your backup quarterback throws an interception at your own 26 yard line with 1:36 left to play on a rainy, windy night, outdoors on the road, against a divisional rival in the playoffs, you’ve lost the game.
- Someone forgot to tell Ryan Shazier and Ross Cockrell that.
Because the Steelers still had three time outs, the Bengals didn’t have the luxury of taking a knee. So their first move was to hand off to Jeremy Hill – not a bad idea as he’d run well that night – Hill found daylight and made it six yards into the Steelers second level…
…where Ryan Shazier found him, forced a fumble which Ross Cockrell picked up.
From across the field, Ben Roethlisberger looked at Mike Tomlin, in Roethlisberger’s words: “I was at the other end of the field, and Coach Tomlin kind of looked at me, and I was giving him the ‘do you want me to go’ type of look; give me the nod. I guess he agreed with me.” As Mike Tomlin described the look as the duo’s “Now or never moment.”
- But Ben was injured, and had to move the ball 91 yards in a minute 1:23 while only being able to throw chink & dunk routes.
But throw them he did, finding Toussaint, Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown six times and converting 3rd and 4th downs in the process. Then he went a little deep for Brown, overthrew him, only to see his friend Vontaze Burfict level Brown with a defenseless receiver hit. Steelers coaches and trainers stepped out to check on Brown. One of those was Joey Porter.
- Adam Jones saw Porter and started jawboning.
As an official tried to keep them separate, Jones grabbed Porter and at some point touched an official. They teach you from Pop Warner forward that both of those are big no-no’s.
- That cost the Bengals another 15 yards, for unsportsmen like conduct.
Before Roethlisberger’s last pass, the Steelers had had the ball at Cincinnati’s 41. The twin Bengals penalties brought them to Cincinnati’s 17. Chris Boswell stepped in and split the uprights without batting an eye.
The Cincinnati Bengals fought valiantly for four quarters and had their first playoff victory since the Mikhail Gorbachev administration in hand.
- Marv Lewis‘ team clearly wanted it, perhaps a little too much.
An injured Ben Roethlisberger deserves credit for driving his team down the field as time ran out, but had the Cincinnati Bengals had been disciplined enough to keep their cool, they’d have had their playoff win.
Instead, they get to stay in Cincinnati while the Pittsburgh Steelers advance to Denver and the AFC Divisional Playoffs.