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Bengals Resolve To Stay In AFC Playoff Chase: 'Just Tell Us We Still Have A Chance'

WR Tee Higgins celebrates his touchdown during the Bengals-Steelers game on Saturday, December 23, 2023 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
WR Tee Higgins celebrates his touchdown during the Bengals-Steelers game on Saturday, December 23, 2023 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

PITTSBURGH _ Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie looked a lot like his team Saturday after the Bengals saw their playoff chances slip to one in ten during that 34-11 loss to the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium.

Beaten but Proud. Grim but game. Stunned but accountable.

"The culture is still there," Awuzie said. "But the playmaking has to get better … Put this loss on me."

If you want to know how tough this division is, it is Christmas Eve and the two-time AFC North champs have yet to win a division game. They get their last shot in two weeks at home against the Browns in the season finale. But first is the New Year's Eve trip to the AFC West and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City as they come to terms with an 8-7 record that The New York Times says put them at 11% to make the playoffs while NBC puts it at 14%.

A win and it would have been 61%.

"Just tell us we still have a chance and that's enough," said captain and right end Sam Hubbard.

Rather remarkable, really, they are still in it.

They arrived with a three-game winning streak and backup quarterback Jake Browning possessing one of the hottest hands in the game. They made it here without their two best players in Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase. Their best run stopper in DJ Reader. Their best cover cornerback in Cam Taylor-Britt.  

By the time halftime arrived, they were down 24-0 to Steelers third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph in his first start of the season and Browning had thrown two of his three interceptions in the first multiple-pick game of his five starts.

One thing about these 30-22 Bengals of the last three seasons. Their team leaders are always in front of their lockers after losses to take the questions no one wants to answer. From Awuzie, who gave up two long balls in Steelers wide receiver George Pickens' 195-yard rampage, to wide receiver Tee Higgins, who answered with the longest play of his career during a season-high 140 yards.

It's not like that everywhere.   

"Tough day. I'm not going to pontificate on anything," said center Ted Karras after the Bengals played into the Steelers' famously aggressive pass rush and fell behind right away.

"We didn't play well enough on offense to give ourselves a chance. We've probably got to have some help. I don't know what the math is, but we've got two weeks to show who we are and try to back door our way in."

Saturday's stark math said 0-5 in the division and the two defensive captains who have led the Bengals into the last two AFC title games said they have to look at how to master the division.

(The other captain, nose tackle DJ Reader, texted a pep talk, Hubbard said. Gone for the season with a quad injury, "He's with us in spirit," Hubbard said.

"Physicality and turnovers. You do those two things, you definitely win the division," said captain and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who has won AFC Norths with both the Bengals and the Steelers.  "That's kind of what happened today. They hit us with some explosives and a couple of turnovers on our side of the 50. We just weren't able to get off the field defensively when we needed to. I would say we just haven't played up to our standards, especially in our own division."

The Bengals offense came out of two red-zone tussles in the first half with no points. One was Browning's end-zone interception he thought he was throwing away but throwing it into a band of Steelers. The other, they couldn't move a second-and-one from the 5 on two passes and a Joe Mixon run.

"Win the turnover margin, stop the run, run the ball, and out-physical the other team," said Hubbard, ticking off the elements to win in the AFC North. "Obviously we should have got more takeaways on defense and we weren't able to do that and that's tough to overcome. You don't lose those games if you weren't more physical.

"Being the winner the last two years, obviously we've had a target on our back."

Awuzie, looking ahead to the Chiefs, says he knows he'll have a target on his back after he gave up a 44-yard ball to Pickens in the last minute of the half on third-and-15 and then a 66-yard touchdown on third-and-one early in the second half.

"The first one is a play I was just trying to do too much," Awuzie said. "I was trying to sit at the sticks when I know I should be over the top. Put that one on me. Put the game on me. If I make those plays, those plays are some momentum grabbers. It's stuff you know is going to happen, but you have to stop. You can't put it on the coaches, but the player. I have to look at it in the face and try to be better. The culture is the culture. It will never change. We're very resilient."

The Steelers put their culture on display Saturday. After two brutal home losses to Arizona and New England and their coach supposedly with one foot out the door and Pickens at the center of a locker room implosion, the Steelers do what they do.

They didn't turn it over, ran for 113 yards, didn't let the Bengals get a foothold by holding them to 59 yards on the ground, hit the quarterback eight times, and still haven't lost three straight home games in 11 years.

The Bengals have showed their culture at the heart of this three-year run in this three-game winning streak and now they're looking for the resiliency part.

"We've got a lot to play for. We've got to regroup," Hubbard said. "We have to make corrections without any ego. We don't point fingers, you look at yourself,  you look at your position group to see how you can play better.  It's a two-game season. There's still a chance to make the playoffs."

Awuzie is starting by saying don't blame his comeback from ACL surgery. In the last month, since Taylor-Britt got hurt, Awuzie has been playing most of the snaps for the first time since he tore his ACL on Halloween Night 2022.

"That was the beginning of the year. Maybe," Awuzie said. "Now we're feeling good, feeling confident. I'm  back. I'll give up plays. It happens. I can't look at my knees. No. I'll be a man about it. We're good."

Awuzie isn't going back to the drawing board. He's going back to the locker room.

"I feel like we've been able to ride the wave. Don't let the wave ride us. We create the wave," Awuzie said. "It starts in the locker room. Practice. The meeting rooms. That's just who we are.  Everything is a must win. Play with that mindset. Win or go home, so to speak."