Bengals lose the handle

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 Running back Giovani Bernard dove at the end of his 17-yard catch-and-run TD.

PITTSBURGH - A.J. Green just sat there for the longest time in front of his locker, his head in his hands.

It was as if he couldn't believe that after putting the Bengals on the brink of the AFC North title with a 17-yard catch at the Steelers 30-yard line with 3:51 left and the Bengals trailing, 20-17, that he fumbled the ball away.

But that's what he did when cornerback Antwon Blake grabbed it and knocked it out as Green tried to make a move after slanting over the middle for the catch. To make matters worse, safety Mike Mitchell hit him in the head as he lay there, driving him out of the game and putting him in the NFL's concussion protocol.

"I just grabbed whatever I could grab," Blake said. "Fortunately enough, I got the ball, so it came out. just grabbed whatever I could grab. Fortunately enough, I got the ball, so it came out."

The turnover summed up the night for the 10-5-1 Bengals and their two stars, now headed to play the Colts in Indianapolis Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12).

While Green fumbled, the Steelers Pro Bowl wide receiver, Antonio Brown, blew the game open three plays later with a 63-yard touchdown catch en route to a 128-yard day on seven catches. Meanwhile, as Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton struggled with his accuracy again and gunned two interceptions in the first half, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger calmly threw for 317 yards even though the Bengals defense shut down the run to just 29 yards.

"The first one I shouldn't have thrown," Dalton said off his first interception. "The next one I left high. It was my fault. You have to be better. You can't turn the ball over."

It was the epitaph for the Bengals' bid to repeat as AFC North champs. They got a 100-yard game from rookie running back Jeremy Hill with 100 even on 23 carries. They held Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell to 20 yards on eight carries and drove him from the game with a knee injury.

But they turned it over three times and gave up Brown's 71-yard punt return for a touchdown, losing the turnover battle by minus-1. Green had the fumble, Dalton had the two picks. Brown had the game of the season while Big Ben brought it home, gunning touchdown passes in the wake of the two turnovers.

"You can't play against yourself and the other team," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "To be quite honest, with the mistakes we made, we shouldn't have even been in the game. But that's how good of a team I think we are. If we just don't hurt ourselves and give people points, I think we're tough to beat.

"You can't come on the road play a great football team; one of the ones that I think is one of the better teams right now left in the playoffs, and play against yourselves at the same time. Turning the ball over, giving them points and opportunities, you can't come on the road and play yourselves and the other team"

The Bengals long-ball passing game was in trouble, even before Green went out with the hit in the head.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau took away the deep ball that killed Pittsburgh in Cincinnati back on Dec. 7 with a two-deep zone and the longest pass Dalton could manage was a 19-yarder to tight end Ryan Hewitt. The longest catch for Green, who had an 81-yarder and 61-yarder against the Steelers on the way to a career-high 224 yards, was that 17-yarder before he fumbled. He played with a pad on his bruised bicep on a night he had eight catches for 82 yards, just two for 15 yards in the first half. The other wide receivers combined for just four catches for 45 yards as 127 of Dalton's 244 yards went to his wide receivers.

Remember, Brown had 128 on seven catches.    

Meanwhile, the Bengals defense, with cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick playing for the ill Terence Newman, did a relatively good job until Brown got past Kirkpatrick three plays after Green's fumble down the right sideline and safety George Iloka missed the tackle for the play that made it 27-17 with 2:50 left.

"Great player, I missed him in the open field,' said Iloka, tipping an imaginary hat. "Obviously we need to get guys down on the ground…I took my shot…That last one is on me.

"We did a good job in the run game. Much better than last time," Iloka said, "But we didn't as good a job against the pass. That wasn't our best game as a secondary."

But this game was not on the Bengals defense. Until Green's fumble, they had the Bengals in position, giving the NFL's second-ranked offense just one touchdown with the other one coming on the punt return. The Bengals offense could never find continuity, except when Dalton started checking it down accurately in the 15-play touchdown drive that took 7:29 and ended in tight end Jermaine Gresham's five-yard touchdown catch with 11:14 left in the game.

Gresham, cramps in his legs as he made the play, momentarily left but returned. He left with a back injury in the first half, but also came back from that.

"They were just bringing a lot of people. It is hard to get run plays off when they are blitzing and bringing all kinds of people down there," Whitworth said. " We were able to throw it around a little bit and that was good but still we can't turn it over and give them opportunities to win the game. You have to make them earn it."

The Bengals have made hay since the 42-21 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 7 by adjusting their running game with more pulling plays. On Sunday night, the Steelers played those plays better than the Browns and Broncos and jammed the line while dropping the safeties deep.

"They adjusted to what we did in the first game and some of the stuff we've been doing the past few weeks against Cleveland and Denver," Hill said. "There are a lot more yards we could have had tonight. Like good teams do, they made adjustments with their fits. They're the division champs. Credit to them.

"We hit on a few of them to start the game. They adjusted to it and we kind of got away from it because they adjusted to it. That's what it is a chess match. Back and forth. We just have to execute and not turn the ball over," Hill said. "If we don't turn it over, it's a different ballgame. We just have to get rid of those."

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