While the rain drenched Paul Brown Stadium in Saturday night's Wild Card Game, the Bengals poured on a break-neck fourth quarter with 16 unanswered points and looked to be headed to their first post-season win in 25 years with 1:50 left when it all imploded emotionally and physically in a gut-wrenching 18-16 loss to the Steelers.
A pair of 15-yard penalties called with 18 seconds left, the last one called on cornerback Adam Jones after an altercation following the 15-yard hit-to-the-head penalty on linebacker Vontaze Burfict resulted in Chris Boswell's 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds left.
After A.J. Green gave the Bengals a 16-15 lead with 1:50 left on a 25-yard touchdown catch, Burfict made a diving interception at the Steelers 26 to apparently seal it.
But, unbelievably, running back Jeremy Hill fumbled on a ball stripped away by linebacker Ryan Shazier at the Steelers 9 with 1:23 left and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, sidelined by a throwing shoulder injury the entire fourth quarter, returned And the Bengals were down starting safety Reggie Nelson (ankle) and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (quad).
Roethlisberger, clearly limited, tried to throw some short screens and work the sidelines. With 28 seconds left from the Steelers 41 he hit wide receiver Antonio Brown for 12 yards out of the slot to put the ball on the Bengals 47 with 22 seconds left.
Then on the next snap, Roethlisberger threw high over the middle to Brown for an incompletion, but Burfict drilled Brown in the head for the first penalty and with Brown injured, Adam Jones got in an altercation with Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter after the play when Porter went on the field and was also flagged.
After Adam Jones raced 24 yards with a punt, Bengals backup quarterback Andy Dalton got the ball at the Pittsburgh 45 with 3:28 left and was ready to step into history. On fourth-and-two from the 37, he hit wide receiver Marvin Jones over the midde at the two-minute warning for a five-yard play.
On third-and-seven, McCarron pump faked as Green ran by cornerback William Gay. Safety Mike Mitchell bit on the fake and was late getting to a leaping Green at the 1 and Green slithered into the end zone for his first post-season touchdown, a 25-yarder that would have sent the Bengals to New England for Saturday's AFC Divisional Game.
After a tough first three quarters, McCarron staged the most remarkable comeback in Bengals' play-off history. Down 15-0 heading into the fourth, he went nine of 15 for 98 yards and a touchdown, finishing 23 of 41 for 212 yards with a pick and the TD. It was tough sledding in the running game until late as they finished with 91 yards on 24 carries.
With the Steelers down to backup quarterback Landry Jones when Roethlisberger left with a shoulder injury on the last play of the third quarter on Burfict's sack, the Bengals cut the lead to 15-10 with 5:12 left in the game on Mike Nugent's 36-yard field goal that capped a 13-play drive. The big play was McCarron's throw on third-and-nine and with Hill picking up the blitz, tight end Tyler Eifert made a splashing and diving 18-yard catch.
The Bengals motored from their 13 with Hill picking up 24 yards on two check-down passes.
The Bengals scored their first play-off points in five quarters with 13:57 left on Hill's one-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 15-7. That was set up when Green drew a 42-yard pass interference penalty on safety Will Allen.
With the Bengals' running game failing to take over the game for McCarron, the Steelers built a 15-0 lead with 5:02 left in the third quarter in a game that turned ugly with frustration after Shazier hit Bengals running back Giovani Bernard on what looked to be a helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in a fumble on the Bengals' best drive of the night.
With 5:02 left in the third quarter the Steelers finally scored a touchdown against a beleaguered defense that was on the field all night. It was a spectacular, once-a-season 10-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Martavis Bryant in the right corner working against good coverage by Kirkpatrick as he trapped the ball against the back of his leg and held on while somersaulting out of bounds.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium for the Wild Card playoff game 1/9/2016
But the big play of the drive was a 60-yard play to Antonio Brown against a zone blitz. Brown ran past dropping right end Michael Johnson, took the flip from Roethlisberger and he took off down the middle of the field for the longest pass against the Bengals in the last six games.
The Pro Bowler Brown had to work for his 119 yards on seven catches with the other six going for 59 yards.
The Bengals finally showed some life on the ensuing drive as they drove to the Steelers 23, but on third-and-nine McCarron flipped a short pass in the flat to Bernard and Shazier blew him up with what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit. Bernard lost the ball and Shazier recovered at the 25 when the whistle blew.
As Bernard lay motionless, the crowd cascaded the officials with boos as replays of the play flashed the hit. Meanwhile, Bengals like Hill and Burfict flashed their anger as the coaches and refs look to restrain the sideline. The play appeared to ignite the Bengals.
Bernard walked off the field and went into concussion protocol, not to return.
When the Bengals went out on defense, the officials stepped in to calm Burfict. On third down, Burfict came on a blitz, sacked Roethlisberger at the Steelers 1, and sent Roethlisberger to the locker room with that right shoulder injury on the last play of the third quarter.
When the Steelers took a 6-0 half-time lead that marked four straight quarters the Bengals had been blanked in the postseason and they were heading into dangerous territory with McCarron. The Bengals didn't score in the second half of their last two Wild Card Games.
Saddled by the stunning lack of a running game that could gather just 10 yards in the half and grappling with the wet ball, McCarron could complete just seven of 14 passes for 46 yards in the half with many of the incompletions floating away from him. On back-to-back plays in the first quarter, he had a ball slip out of his hands and fumbled a snap. After fluttering an interception on a deep ball in the second quarter, McCarron put a glove on his throwing hand, but the yards were still tough to come by.
He targeted Green just twice for one catch and four yards in the half. He had him open on a third-and-six on their last drive of the half, but the pass was too high and the Steelers converted the punt for their second field goal of the game.
But McCarron came back to play that gutty fourth quarter.
It was the dearth of a Bengals running game that caught everyone by surprise. Hill had minus-five yards on his first three carries. The only time they got anything is when Bernard broke a 14-yard draw on third-and-16.
The game started out like most of the Bengals' recent play-off outings. They were unable to run the ball and they weren't as stout against the run as they had been during the regular season.
Without their top two running backs, the Steelers turned to Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman, guys that came into the game with a combined 66 yards on 22 carries for the season.
While the Bengals could manage just minus-two yards on their only three carries of a scoreless first quarter, Toussaint and Todman rattled off 50 yards on runs mostly up the middle against a defense that allowed just 82 yards rushing yards per game in the last 10 weeks. The Steelers went into the halftime with the 72 yards on 17 carries the Bengals were supposed to have and finished with 167 on 29, the second most against the Bengals this season after Seattle's 200 on Oct. 11.
On third-and-six from the Bengals 36 early in the second quarter, safety Reggie Nelson blitzed the Steelers out of field position when he sacked Roethlisberger. But he rolled his ankle on the play when he got entangled with linebacker Vincent Rey and had to be helped off the field, done for the game, taking away the Ben Whisperer who had picked off Roethlisberger six times in the previous seven meetings.
In that drive the Bengals were also the beneficiary of an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Todman had just broken a sweep for a nine-yard gain and when Nelson ran him out of bounds he ran into Munchak and Munchak grabbed Nelson's dredlocks.
The Bengals avoided their own disaster from an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the next series. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins sacked Roethlisberger on second down, yet it was negated when defensive tackle Domata Peko was reportedly given 15-yarder for saying something to the Steelers when he came off the bench.
But they forced the first turnover of the game a few snaps later when Burfict came up to tackle wide receiver Markus Wheaton after a short pass and Wheaton fumbled at the Bengals 47, where it was recovered by safety George Iloka.
But they could do nothing with the ball and on third-and-long McCarron had the ball slip out of his hand when he went long for wide receiver Marvin Jones. The ball fluttered and was about five yards short, where cornerback Antwon Blake caught and ran it back to the Bengals 41.
The Steelers overcame another unsportsmanlike conduct call, this one on guard Ramon Foster, but on second-and-23 Antonio Brown finally broke out. Cornerback Adam Jones knocked Brown off his route, but before safety Shawn Williams, playing for Nelson, could converge, Brown caught a 21-yarder on the sideline to set up Boswell's 39-yard field goal for the first score of the game with 2:32 left in the first half.
The Bengals' inability to get anything in a two-minute drill set up the Steelers' next score, Boswell's 30-yarder with 33 seconds left. But on the previous play, linebacker Vincent Rey dropped an easy interception at the Bengals 3 on a terrible throw by Roethlisberger. Ben finished 18 of 31 for 229 yards and just his second TD pass of the season vs. the Bengals, good for a 92 passer rating.
On the game's second drive, after McCarron got sacked when linebacker Lawrence Timmons blitz untouched, Eifert converted a third-and-12 on a screen when he dragged Mike Mitchell and cornerback William Gay for 16 yards and the first down.
But the Bengals just couldn't get the run going with Hill netting minus-three yards on his first three carries. Facing third-and-three from the Steelers 38, McCarron took a shot for Eifert for the first down on a short pass over the middle, but safety Robert Golden got hand in to break it up and punter Kevin Huber dropped it on the Steelers 6
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals activated second-year right end Will Clarke for the second time in six games with an eye at getting pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Saturday night's Wild Card Game at Paul Brown Stadium. He took the place of right end Margus Hunt after Hunt had played in five straight.
Other than the inactives were as expected, led by quarterback Andy Dalton and tight end Ryan Hewitt. Also out were wide receiver Mario Alford, defensive linemen Marcus Hardison and DeShawn Williams, as well tackle Eric Winston.
The National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio is still calling for rain by kickoff and the projection is it is going to be steady enough to accumulate about half an inch, but they're not calling for a soaker. The kick-off temperature was supposed to come in at about 49 degrees and dipping to about 45 by the end of the game.