PITTSBURGH – All of a sudden they were down 21-0 with 1:12 left in the first quarter and that was pretty much it for the Bengals on a night the only thing that came out faster than Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown was the 23 mile-per-hour wind that made Heinz Field feel like it was 12 degrees Sunday night.
Head coach Marvin Lewis acknowledged it looked bad and flat. "We didn't make anything happen," he said. "We didn't make any plays, create any opportunities or make plays early in the football game." But the defense that allowed just one touchdown drive and the offense that never had a chance to run the ball wasn't sure if it got beat by the Steelers or circumstance.
"It's a 20-16 game (for the Bengals) without two fluke plays," said left guard Andrew Whitworth. "You're in a position they know what you're doing and you know what you're doing. In these kinds of conditions it's going to be hard. That wind, the way it was blowing, it was going to be tough. I don't see the flatness. I see they made two huge plays. Once you're down 21-0, you're down 21-0. I don't know if it was a flat deal as much as they made a great special teams play, and we didn't get the first down on third and one. I don't think that dictates that game. I wish we had gotten better field position to where maybe that stuff wouldn't have been as costly, but I don't know if that would have changed anything."
The first 13:48 was so bad it couldn't be overcome and everyone had a hand in it. There was not only three special teams miscues, there were three penalties, the Bengals managed just one first down, gave up a sack, and allowed the Steelers to convert on fourth-and-four on a drive Pittsburgh was aided by a slew of missed tackles by the Bengals that carried over from last week's win over the Colts.
"We got down quick. It changes the way you do things a little bit. Things happened so quickly," said Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. "They made some plays. They got up on us, so we were trying to play catch-up the whole time."
When the dust cleared at the end of 13:48, it was more like fallout covering Cincinnati's missed chance for a playoff bye and the second seed. For the first time in 27 years the Bengals allowed three touchdowns in the first quarter and now they have to grind to make sure the playoffs don't start without them, never mind getting the first game off.
"The first quarter was like, wow. Just one bad thing after another," said nickel cornerback Chris Crocker. "We've had games where we didn't play well in the beginning, but this was really bad. I don't think guys even cared about (the second seed). We're just really licking our wounds right now. Let's move on to Minnesota (next week at Paul Brown Stadium) and let's try to win the next two games. We're just disappointed how we let it get away from us early. We didn't tackle well. Everyone has a hand in that. If we tackle better it's a different game."
Crocker had a pretty good view of the two major special teams gaffes. He thought the snap that punter Kevin Huber dropped outside the goal line floated away from him because of the wind and the punt that Brown broke for a 67-yard touchdown was set up by a kick that floated right to him in the middle of the field.
"You lose the punt when you let the ball get away from you; the wind just took it away from you," Crocker said. "(And) you can't put the ball in the middle of the field when you have Antonio Brown back there."
With the Vikings and Ravens left at PBS the next two weeks in 1 p.m. games, the Bengals are counting on playing in a building where they're unbeaten this year. But they have to scrape it together knowing they let a huge chance get away from them after Miami gave them an unencumbered shot at the second seed with its win over New England earlier in the day.
"It's disappointing. You had a chance to do everything you want to do," Whitworth said. "But the season isn't over. We've got an opportunity to go win the next two and get ourselves in the playoffs and go from there."
The Bengals go forward after Dalton again struggled again in the wind (25-of-44 for 230 yards, two TDs, no picks) even though he didn't get a lot of help around him.
"I think with some of the throws you could see what the wind was doing with it," Dalton said. "There were different times where the ball felt like it changed with the wind. It is just part of it. There is going to be elements when playing in these games. You have to fight through it."
Wide receiver A.J. Green finished with 93 yards on nine catches, but didn't have a 100-yard day because he had a couple of drops and no receiver caught a ball longer than 19 yards.
"This is the same Pittsburgh defense. I didn't play good today. Sometimes it happens like that. We just need to go out there and regroup," Green said. "It happens like that sometimes. This is the NFL. Some days you are going to feel like it's going. Some days you're not."
The biggest weapon for the Bengals in their last two games has been the running game, but it was taken away in that bizarre 13:48. And even then, they couldn't generate a thing against the NFL's 24th-ranked run defense. Although Whitworth said it didn't dictate the game, when running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis couldn't convert a third-and-one from the Cincinnati 16 on the first series, it set a tone. The right interior of the line got stood up and the next play was Huber dropping the punt.
"I think we were just flat. I don't think it's other teams doing this or that," rookie running back Giovani Bernard said after he could dig out just 33 yards on 13 carries. "I think it's just us not coming out ready to play. That has kind of been the story this season. If we come out fast, everything else will take care of itself. We will be fine. This is nothing to hang our heads over. We still have an opportunity to win this division."
So it was left for Lewis to explain how his team came out so flat in such a big game.
"We got outplayed tonight. As I stated, I tried to do as good as I could coming in here to give you something," Lewis said. "We didn't make anything happen early in the football game and it led to us getting outplayed."
The Bengals could never get into a rhythm in the second half. While the Steelers went no-huddle, the Bengals took a drive lasting 7:09 to cut the lead to 30-14 with 14:09 left in the game on a one-yard pass to tight end Tyler Eifert from Dalton. Then when Dalton hit wide-open wide receiver Marvin Jones in the end zone from 13 yards out with 5:46 left and the two-point conversion failed, the Bengals opted not to onside kick.
"When you think about if you're going to onside kick, you onside kick when you need to or there is a weakness in what they're doing," Lewis said. "But not at that point with three timeouts left."
In the end, it was just too much to overcome and now instead of bannering the second seed, Cincinnati's lead in the AFC North is down to a game and a half.
"We are still in control of everything. That's where we want to be right now. There is no panic," Dalton said. "There's no extra little bit where we are trying to get frantic. We still have two games at home. If we take care of our business a lot of good things can happen. We have to play well these next two weeks."
Suddenly, the team that was in control of the AFC North has to win the last two to make sure it gets in the playoffs because if 8-6 Miami is the sixth seed, like it is now, the Dolphins go instead of the 9-5 Bengals if they have the same record because of their win over the Bengals on Oct. 31.
"We'll get back to work this week," Crocker said, "and right this wrong."