AFC North now a steel-cage match as Bengals fall

Sunday's AFC North slobber-knocker at sold-out Paul Brown turned into a display of offensive heavyweights but the game spun on one of those old-fashioned turnovers when the Bengals' four-point lead dissolved into a 14-point deficit during a dizzying span of 6:29 in the fourth quarter of a 42-21 loss to the Steelers before 65,512.

The 8-4-1 Bengals stayed in first place in the AFC North, but the rest of the division is coming after them, led by the 8-5 Steelers as they pumped up 543 yards for the most against the Bengals since Clevleland nicked them for 554 in 2007 and the most at home in the 12 seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis. It's also the third time this year they've allowed more than 500 yards.

The Ravens join Pittsburgh at 8-5 and the 7-6 Browns get ready to host the Bengals next Sunday in what is now a string of win-or-else games.

With the Bengals leading, 21-20, early in the fourth quarter, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton pulled the ball out of rookie running back Jeremy Hill's stomach on a zone read and when the ball hit Hill's hip it bounced away and Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats fell on it at the Bengals 24 with 12:45 left in the game.

Then on third-and-seven, wide receiver Antonio Brown beat cornerback Adam Jones to the sideline for the first down and Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell plowed in for a 13-yard touchdown run. When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit wide-open tight end Heath Miller for the two-point conversion, that gave the Steelers a 28-21 lead with 11:27 left.

The zone read giveth and the zone read taketh away. In the first half when the Bengals ran it, Dalton kept it for a 20-yard touchdown, the longest scoring run ever by a Bengals quarterback, topping Kenny Anderson's 19-yarder against Cleveland in 1974.

After the Steelers went up, 28-21, Bengals punter Kevin Huber pinned them on the Pittsburgh 6. On the first play, wide receiver Martavis Bryant ran past cornerback Leon Hall right down the right sideline and Roethlisberger threw a beauty for a 94-yard touchdown pass that made it 35-21 with 8:31 left. It was the second longest pass ever against the Bengals, longer than all but Jeff Garcia's 99-yard strike for Cleveland in 2004.

It was a stunning moment for a Bengals secondary that had been so good this year, not allowing a pass of at least 40 yards since Nov. 2.

Roethlisberger had 350 yards passing to go on top of Bell's 185 rushing yards, the most by a back against the Bengals since the Ravens' Ray Rice had 191 in the 2011 season finale at PBS.  Throw in another 100-yard day by the NFL's leading receiver, Antonio Brown (117), and it was ugly. Bell went off on the Steelers' power play running behind pulling right guard David DeCastro and the motioning Miller and that's the play that got the Steelers going.  

The Bengals had just taken a 21-17 lead on the last play of the third quarter with the second longest play of the Green-Dalton Era when Green skated past cornerback Ike Taylor and Dalton put it on the money as Green made a hellacious cutback to finish off the 81-yard touchdown play. Green had an 82-yarder last year.

But on the next snap, Bell swiped the momentum with a 53-yard run that set up a field goal that cut it to 21-20. It was the longest run in the regular season against the Bengals since Rice's 70-yard TD in that '11 finale.

Green had the first 200-yard day of his career with 224 on 11 catches and Dalton finished with 21 of 29 passing for 302 yards with two touchdowns and no picks for a 128.8 passer rating, but that couldn't prevent a second straight PBS loss by 21 point.  It was the second most yards caught by a Bengals receeiver in a game, trailing only Chad Johnson's record of 260 set in 2006 against San Diego in another PBS loss.

Brown went off on the Steelers' first possession of the second half as they took a 17-14 lead on  Roethlisberger's 10-yard touchdown pass to Bell with 5:24 left in the third quarter.

After a holding penalty, Brown got 12 yards back on second down when they had Bell double covered and no one on Brown underneath. Then on the next snap, on third-and-eight, Brown got inside cornerback Terence Newman for the first down. Then on the next snap he raced past Newman and Newman grabbed his jersey and then slipped as Brown came back to pocket a 32-yard catch to put the Steelers on the edge of the red zone. They scored on the 10-yard pass when Bell beat SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur in coverage to end a drive Pittsburgh converted all three third downs.

The Bengals offense responded with a poor series. After a screen to running back Giovani Bernard for five yards, he got nothing on second down and on a third-down check down nowhere near the first-down sticks, Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons blew up Bernard for an incompletion.

On the first possession of the second half, Dalton had Green open on a slant for a first down on third-and-13, but he threw it behind him for an incompletion that turned it over to the Steelers' for a go-ahead drive.

Dalton ran for the longest touchdown of any Bengals quarterback ever and threw for another in the first half the Bengals took a 14-10 lead.

The defense staged another stand in the last minute of the half, where they forced three straight incompletions from Roethlisberger at the Cincinnati 4 with backup cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard in the game.

Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga fended off the NFL's leading receiver at the goa line when he walled off Brown on first down and on second down Roethlisberger overthrew wide-open wide receiver Lance Moore in the right corner of the end zone. On third down with 20 seconds left, safety Reggie Nelson boxed out wide receiver Markus Wheaton on the back line over the middle and on a pass sailed out the end zone. Shaun Suisham then came on to hit a 22-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to make it 14-10.

The Bengals left the Steelers off the hook when Bengals safety Shaun Williams' flying tackle on the kickoff saddled the Steelers at the 15 with 2:57 left in the half. But Roethlisberger used all three times and the two-minute warning to free up Brown and Bell. The Bengals lost cornerbacks Terence Newman (shoulder) and Adam Jones (bruised chest) on the drive, but they returned.

The Bengals did a job keeping Bell and Brown in front of them in the first half. Bell had 62 yards on 14 carries in the first half while Brown had four catches for 44 yards and aided by that last drive, Roethlisberger went 14 of 23 for 143 yards for a 93.2 passer rating.

Dalton responded with a 127.1 on 13 of 16 passing for 152 yards and he had an interception waved off on offsetting penalties.   

With Green going over the 100-yard mark for the 20th time in his career with 104 yards on seven catches in the half to tie Isaac Curtis in second place on the Bengals all-time list, Dalton went to him on third-and-eight with 5:08 left in the half. Green caught a slant in front of cornerback Ike Taylor for 13 yards. After Hill converted a screen for 15 yards, Dalton was looking at a second-and-10 from the Steelers 20.  

The Bengals ran the stretch play off the zone read and Dalton chose to keep it when he saw linebacker Jason Worlids crash on the edge. He took off untouched when he went around the right corner to give the Bengals a 14-7 lead on that historic 20-yard run with 2:57 left in the half. How ironic the Bengals' slide began with a fumble on the zone read.  

The Bengals took advantage of the Steelers' leaky big-play defense when Dalton struck with the 12th pass of at least 40 yards against Pittsburgh this season. He  launched a high punt down the middle and Green hauled it in for a 56-yarder right past safety Troy Polamalu.

Then a few snaps later Dalton went play-action and floated a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham running past cornerback William Gay biting on the run fake to tie the game at seven.

And then came a huge sequence. Bell, who came into Paul Brown Stadium as a 1,000-yard rusher but a 65-catch receiver, caught a nine-yarder on the game's next snap. He then lost three yards on the next play, a run sniffed out by defensive tackle Geno Atkins as he rampaged to a big first half. Then on third-and-four WILL linebacker Vincent Rey ran step-for-step with tight end Heath Miller and broke up a pass over the middle.

The Bengals and Steelers slammed at each other in the first quarter and didn't get a first down until the first play of the second quarter and it was Roethlisberger converting a third-and-six on a bootleg that Bryant caught and ran for 16 yards.

Roethlisberger then went play-action on the next play and Moore caught the longest completion by a wide receiver against the Bengals since Nov. 2, a wide-open 29-yarder down the middle that put the ball on the Bengals 13. Then on third-and-three, the Steelers put the relentless Bell in the slot and a quick slant over the middle beat the blitz and put the ball on the Bengals 1, where Roethlisberger flipped a wide-open touchdown pass to Miller for a 7-0 lead with 11:17 left in the half.  

For the second straight week a trick play by the Bengals special teams betrayed them. They tried a fake punt on fourth-and-three from the Steelers 40 at the end of their first series of the game and running back Cedric Peerman fumbled after he ran the direct snap as the personal protector and the Steelers took over at their own 40.

But the defense bailed them out and allowed just a yard after the turnover. They forced the three-and-out with Rey covering Bell for a first-down incompletion and the gang mass tackling Bell for a yard gain on second down. On third-and-nine Roethlisberger took a shot deep but it was slightly overthrown to Brown and Newman had good coverage.

But the Bengals offense couldn't convert on their first two third downs against the NFL's fourth-best third down defense  even though they were both only third-and-two. On the first one, it appeared Gresham didn't get his head around in time on a short incompletion over the middle. On the second, the Bengals split their tackles up the middle and Hill couldn't get it up the middle when the Steelers had more men in the box.

And they whiffed on their third straight, but that was third-and-11 when Dalton had to check down to Gresham. The Bengals ran a lot of unbalanced lines and were using an extra tackle, usually Marshall Newhiuse, but couldn't get much out of the formations. On second-and-seven Dalton went play-action in an extra-tackle package, but the Steelers weren't fooled and he got sacked by Moats.

PREGAME NOTES: Clint Boling made his first NFL start at right tackle in one of the biggest moments of the season in Sunday's AFC North showdown against the Steelers at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.

Boling, the starting left guard in the 12 previous games, moved over and was replaced by Mike Pollak after he took 19 snaps over there backing up Marshal Newhouse in Tampa last week. That was his first extended regular-season action at tackle since his nine starts at right tackle at Georgia.

Newhouse is expected to play some Sunday, but Eric Winston is not except in case of emergency. Winston, signed on Tuesday after not playing at all this season, was active Sunday and probably gets a bigger role next week in Cleveland.

With James Wright (knee) inactive, the Bengals went with four wide receivers and made Greg Little active for the first time since Nov. 6 while de-activating Dane Sanzenbacher. Also down was newly-signed linebacker Chris Carter, as well as running back Rex Burkhead, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, and offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson.

Injured WILL backer Vontaze Burfict (knee) and backup right end Margus Hunt (ankle), as expected, were also inactive, as was Steelers right outside linebacker James Harrison (knee).

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