PITTSBURGH — The Bengals walked on to Sunday night's national stage at Heinz Field knowing a win would put them into the second seed in the AFC playoff picture. But what ensued in stunning fashion was the most bitter loss in the 46-game
Down 27-7 at halftime after losing punter
The Bengals made it 30-20 when quarterback Andy Dalton hit wide-open wide receiver
As good as the special teams have been for the Bengals this season, they were as horrific as they've ever been in the 11 seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis in Sunday's first quarter as three major gaffes allowed the Steelers to jump to a 21-0 lead in the game's first 13:48 that later grew to 24-0. It was the first time the Bengals have allowed 21 points in a first quarter since the 1986 season.
The carnage culminated when Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown feasted on Huber's punt right down the middle of the field and badly faked out rookie linebacker
Special teams didn't exactly get a lot of help. Cincinnati's running game was supposed to finally stand up to a Steelers run defense ranked 24th in the NFL. But the Bengals dropped back to throw five of their first nine snaps and when they tried to run, were often beaten by unblocked men. The Bengals finished with just 57 yards rushing on 22 carries.
And they suffered an emotional downer when Harrison, the former Steelers Pro Bowler, made his Heinz return and left early in the game with a concussion, leaving the defense without another pass rusher. Nothing went right or well in a first half that was the worst in the Green-Dalton era. While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit his first 12 passes, Dalton started 2-for-10 and finished the half just 7-of-17 passing for 65 yards as he was bothered by the rush, no running game, and his receivers rarely got open. Wide receiver A.J. Green also had two drops as the game veered into the middle of the third quarter.
The Bengals picked up nine yards on their first offensive snap on Dalton's pass to Green to the Bengals 16. But on second down Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was all over a bubble screen to wide receiver Marvin Jones and actually should have pick-sixed it, but it was incomplete. Then on third-and-one the Steelers stuffed running back
Then Huber, who was such a big factor in winning here last year with a 48.3-yard net, impacted it the other way. He dropped
Then another special teams snafu cost the Bengals field position on the ensuing kickoff on a curious call. Running back
Huber got off a 48-yard punt, but the Steelers still had great field position at the Bengals 47 and when they went for it on fourth-and-four from the Bengals 31, Bell beat WILL linebacker
The proud Bengals defensive front really struggled in the first half against the rather pedestrian Steelers offensive line that came into the game with the NFL's next-to-worst running game. The Bengals couldn't get any pressure from a four-man rush, which is their signature, and Roethlisberger pretty much had his way on 20-of-25 passing for 191 yards for the game in lifting his record to 15-6 against Cincinnati.
Missed tackles were also a huge problem. Middle linebacker
The Steelers tacked on field goals of 25 and 45 yards by Shaun Suisham, the last one with 1:14 left in the half to make it 27-7. Even the lone Bengals touchdown was a grind, needing Dalton's quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one from the 3 to set up
With 1:14 left in the half the Bengals tried to get something going, but on first down Dalton sailed a pass over the head of Marvin Jones on the sideline.
The clubs traded turnovers to start the second half, Polamalu forcing a fumble by Bengals tight end
It was a tough start for Kirkpatrick. On the first snap of his first NFL start he was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty and then two plays later he missed Bell after a catch and that turned into a 12-yard gain.
Gresham didn't come back into the game after he hurt his hip in the third quarter.
PREGAME NOTES: As expected Dre Kirkpatrick made his first NFL start Sunday night at Heinz Field when he replaced injured left cornerback
Besides Newman, also inactive for the Bengals were wide receivers
SEED MONEY: The first piece of the puzzle fell into place Sunday afternoon.
The 9-4 Bengals went into Sunday night's game with the chance to move into the second seed in the AFC playoff picture with a win over the Steelers in the wake of the Dolphins' 24-20 victory over the Patriots in Miami.
The Patriots fell to 10-4, but the Bengals win a tiebreaker over New England by virtue of Cincinnati's 13-6 victory over the Pats on Oct. 6 at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals are a game behind top-seed and 11-3 Denver, but if they can beat the Steelers the team they're looking at is Baltimore. If the Ravens lose Monday night in Detroit and the Bengals beat the Steelers, Cincinnati is the AFC North champ for the second time in five seasons. The 7-6 Ravens are also playing for the sixth and final seed and trail the 8-6 Dolphins, but Baltimore holds the tiebreaker with an Oct. 6 win in Miami.
WIND TUNNEL: The game got underway in a stiff wind of 23 miles per hour and after the Bengals lost the coin toss, Cincinnati's Mike Nugent kicked off the game with the wind.