PITTSBURGH — With a playoff berth on the line Sunday at sun-splashed Heinz Field, the Bengals got the brilliant defensive effort they needed with two hellacious red-zone stands in the third quarter that kept the game tied at 10 and fittingly it was a 21-yard bullet from Andy Dalton to wide receiver A.J. Green that set up Josh Brown's 43-yard field goal with four seconds left that gave Cincinnati back to postseason berths for the first time in 30 years with a numbing 13-10 victory.
It was set up by safety Reggie Nelson's interception at the Steelers 46 with 14 seconds left that culminated one of the greatest defensive games in Cincinnati's franchise history.
"We were saying in the huddle, 'Just give Andy time and he'll find somebody,' " said center Kyle Cook.
That someone turned out to be the franchise's best player and Green came through when everyone needed him the most as he finished with a hard-fought 10 catches for 116 yards against the NFL's top-ranked defense.
Both Green and Nelson taught the lesson of hanging-with-'em. On the second snap of the fourth quarter, Green fumbled at the Steelers 28 after a 12-yard pickup. On the Steelers only touchdown, Nelson was supposed to blitz in an all-out run at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but Nelson didn't go and Antonio Brown was able to get past cornerback Adam Jones for a 60-yard bomb late in the first half, the result of Jones jumping the route because he thought Roethlisberger had to hurry.
But Green and Nelson were able to atone in the last 14 seconds.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had so much faith in his defense that he let Brown try a 56-yard field goal with 3:18 left.
It was far short, giving two-minute maven Roethlisberger a first down at his 45 and when he scrambled for four yards on third down, it was the 12th time out of 14 snaps the Bengals won on third down and it set up Shaun Suisham's 53-yard field goal that was short with 1:47 left.
But despite their great field position, the Bengals couldn't convert a third-and-one when they went for it all on third-and-one from midfield and Dalton overthrew Green deep with 44 seconds left.
The Bengals defense could generate Cincinnati's only touchdown as the Steelers stymied the Bengals running game on seven yards in running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis's first 10 carries, blanketed Green in the long-ball game, stopped the Bengals on 11 of 15 third-down tries, and picked off Dalton twice while holding him to 24 completions on 41 throws for 278 yards.
The Bengals had just 14 rushing yards on 16 carries, the club's second fewest of all time, bested only by the four of Sept. 24, 2000 against Lewis's Ravens.
Green's longest catch and biggest went for 21 yards, but he dropped a big one in the middle of the third quarter when he had the cornerback beat down the left sideline and couldn't haul it in in the red zone. But he kept battling for his third most productive day of the season and most yards since 135 in Cleveland Oct. 14.
It highlighted a bad offensive series that reached the Steelers 21 when Dalton hit tight end Jermaine Gresham for a 25-yard gain down the seam on third-and-14 against the Steelers Cover 2.
But the drive blew up when the Bengals couldn't run it and Dalton was called for intentional grounding. When Lewis opted to go for it on fourth-and-22 rather than try a 51-yard field goal with a 10-7 lead, Dalton hung it up for Green just past the first-down sticks and he came down with it between two Steelers. But he only had a foot and a half inbounds with that second foot barely.
But the defense, naturally, answered the call. The Steelers were looking at a first down from the Bengals 11, but defensive tackle Domata Peko and WILL backer Vontaze Burfict dropped running back Jonathan Dwyer for a three-yard loss and right end Michael Johnson forced Suisham's 40-yard field goal with one of the four Bengals sacks of Roethlisberger that made it a 10-10 tie with 4:01 left in the third quarter.
The defense saved the day again when the Bengals came out for the second half with a 10-7 lead and Dalton threw an interception on the half's first play into the seam with a late look and short throw to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins that was picked by cornerback Cortez Allen at the Bengals 32.
But this was the Geno Atkins Show as the third-year defensive tackle showed why many think he's the best in the game. He split one of his 2.5 sacks on third-and-seven to take the Steelers out of field-goal-range to keep it at 10-7.
The Bengals defense pitched a shutout for the game's first 28:51, but Roethlisberger broke it up with thjat 60-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 1:09 left in the first half that cut Cincinnati's lead to 10-7 at halftime.
The Bengals, looking for the win to put them into the playoffs, had just taken a 10-0 lead on Josh Brown's 41-yard field goal. They had held Roethlisberger to a 12 passer rating until he executed one of those lethal double-pumps and Brown ran past Adam Jones wide open down the left side for the longest completion against the Bengals since a 71-yard TD to Cleveland's Josh Gordon on Oct. 14.
It is just exactly what the Bengals didn't want to happen. The Steelers scored with 24 seconds left in the first half during their win in Cincinnati back on Oct. 21, and it marked the 12th game the Steelers have scored in the last two minutes of the first half.
The Bengals came into Sunday's play-in game for the playoffs seeking a defensive touchdown to help the offense against the Steelers defense and they got it with 2:15 left in the first quarter when cornerback Leon Hall jumped in front of tight end Heath Miller on third-and-four and returned it 17 yards for a 7-0 lead, highlighting just how well the defense played to open the game.
It was Cincinnati's third straight stop on third down and Hall made it count when he deked running back Isaac Redman at the 5 and went in for his second career pick-six and first in four years since his three-interception game in Cleveland.
It came in the wake of Cincinnati's first of two devastating special teams penalties when Adam Jones's 62-yard punt return to the Pittsburgh 13 was negated by a hold on cornerback Jason Allen working on another cornerback, Curtis Brown. That pushed the ball all the way to the Bengals 15 and after a quick throw to wide receiver Marvin Jones for 11 yards the Bengals ended up punting.
The Bengals suffered their second setback on special teams in the game's first 17 minutes when linebacker Dan Skuta was called for running into punter Drew Butler and the Steelers took advantage to get a third-and-one from the Bengals 6 with 9:25 left in the half.
But the Bengals came up with another strong red-zone effort, and didn't give up a touchdown for the 11th time the last 14 trips they found themselves inside the 20. Left end Carlos Dunlap chased Roethlisberger (six of 12 in the half with more than half his 113 yards coming on the Brown TD) out of the pocket and his incomplete throw to running back Chris Rainey in the back of the end zone was well covered by middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Then on the field-goal chip shot, a bad snap foiled Suisham's bid for his 16th straight field goal, and forced just his second miss of the season to keep it at 7-0.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau came out and challenged Dalton to beat him as he crowded the box to stop Green-Ellis. The Bengals came in with their lowest rushing game 128 yards in their last five outings, but The Law Firm could manage just seven yards on 10 carries and Dalton had to bob and weave for nine of 15 for just 89 yards.
It looked like Dalton might have a touchdown on the snap before Brown's field goal as he launched a third-and-nine from the Steelers 23 high into the end zone, where Marvin Jones leaped over cornerback Keenan Lewis and had the ball. But Lewis kept battling and the ball came out as they hit the ground.
Even though LeBeau crowded the box, the Bengals couldn't hit a big play in the passing game. On the snap before he threw it to Jones, Dalton hung one up to his favorite target, Green, down the right sideline. As Green went to corral it, strong safety Troy Polamalu came over the top and drilled Green to knock it away.
Green finished the half with three catches for 29 yards and his long was just 15 yards.
The Bengals ended the first Steelers series on third-and-five when Atkins beat Pittsburgh's first-round pick, right guard David DeCastro, for his 11.5th sack of the season. That's the most sacks by a Bengal since defensive end Eddie Edwards had 13 in 1983, and Atkins tied him by the end of the day.
On Cincinnati's first series, the Bengals first-round right guard, Kevin Zeitler, got beat by linebacker Lawrence Timmons for a sack and on third down Dalton took a coverage sack when end Brett Keisel got to him.
But the Bengals got a life when Keisel was called for going to the ground for a celebration when he went to a knee and shot an arrow. The Bengals couldn't hit the jugular when Dalton had Gresham open down the seam and overthrew him on third-and-seven.
PREGAME NOTES: For the third straight game Josh Brown undertook the kicking duties for the Bengals in their bid to secure a playoff spot Sunday against the Steelers.
The Bengals also opted to give center Kyle Cook his first start of the season (his 50th in the NFL and seventh against the Steelers), but he's expected to rotate with Trevor Robinson.
The Bengals suited up running back Cedric Peerman for the first time since he injured his ankle Dec. 2 in San Diego and sat down running back Daniel Herron. In the previous two games Herron broke into the NFL disrupting two punts, but the turn to Peerman indicates he's not only healthy enough to play special teams but also to get some carries.
Also inactive besides Herron and kicker Mike Nugent were four rookies—cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, safety George Iloka, and defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson—as well as tight end Richard Quinn.
Which meant the hamstring injury that put cornerback Adam Jones on the injury list Friday didn't put him on the inactive list.
Cook was named a game captain, along with quarterback Andy Dalton, middle linebacker Ray Maualuga, cornnerback Leon Hall and linebacker Dan Skuta.