PITTSBURGH - If this were indeed the crossroads game that veers the Bengals-Steelers series in another direction for the next few years, Joe Burrow signaled the moment by pointing the football at the Steelers end zone's Black and Gold Sea during Sunday's 24-10 TKO.
Burrow, who had just scampered inside the Steelers 10 with an unbridled, joyous eight-yard run, had just helped his team convert the karma, never mind the first down.
"I got it from Joe Mix," Burrow said of his first-down sign. "That's what he does."
Running back Joe Mixon did his part to move the sticks with five yards per his 18 carries and move his career yards per carry against the Steelers to 5.4, another indicator a new trend is afoot.
Sure, the Steelers defense was down and out without four starters in their front seven, including the great T.J. Watt. But Burrow's new breed didn't give the Steelers a chance to think they could conjure up any historical magic. Up 17-7 in the middle of the third quarter and the ball on the Steelers 17 after linebacker Logan Wilson's second interception, Burrow went for the kill on the next two plays.
(Wilson, by the way, is also in on this. He played the best game by a Bengals linebacker since You Know Who Against You Know What Team in Which Game.)
First, Burrow called his own number on that quarterback draw, spreading out the field with no one behind him in the backfield. Before he took the shotgun snap, he saw the middle open and decided to take it himself.
"You get in empty and sometimes teams get tired of us just dinking and dunking in empty so they'll put no backers in the box," Burrow said. "They didn't have any backers in the box so I called that play. It was exciting because coming into this season I didn't know if I would be able to do that today and so that's exciting for me. I feel confident in myself to make that check."
It was a rambunctious, post-ACL run. He knew what it meant.
"I felt good with my movement in the pocket and my movement outside the pocket as well. And like I said, I checked to the quarterback draw," Burrow said. "It's exciting for me to feel that way and feel confidence in my leg. We're just going to keep building, we're going to keep doing my rehab stuff so that can continue."
Then on the next play from the 9, Burrow had plenty of time to call his last number. Behind his reinvigorated offensive line, Burrow bounced on his toes in the pocket until rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase broke away from vet cornerback Joe Haden across the end zone. Burrow had so much time he called Chase his fifth option.
It was 24-7 and an offensive line that had been critiqued and cracked had yet to allow a sack and they wouldn't the rest of the way in snapping another trend. The Steelers lost their NFL-record 75 straight games with at least a one sack as the Bengals posted their first sack-less game against Pittsburgh since they beat the Steelers in the 2013 Paul Brown Stadium opener.
Take a look at that play and there is linebacker Melvin Ingram, playing for the injured Alex Highsmith, trying to run a stunt and he is engulfed by rookie right guard Jackson Carman in his first NFL start.
"I told the O-Line that was their touchdown. And when you have that kind of time in the red zone, we got too many playmakers not to get open in that situation," Burrow said.
"He was five, yeah. That's what I said to the O-line: 'I was able to get to my fifth read and that's all because of you guys.' In this league when you can get to your fifth read, your fifth read is almost always open and so that's all on the O-line."
Burrow erupted after the nine-yard touchdown pass and guys like left tackle Jonah Williams felt it.
"There was some fire and emotion. That's a good feeling. We're excited to throw a touchdown. We're excited for our receiver and the quarterback," Williams said. "When we jog off the field and all the coaches are high-fiving us and telling us "great job" too, it's a good feeling for us as an O line to contribute to that in the only way we can, which is by putting up good protection. Those are the moments that make this game so fun, being able to jog off the field and we all know we did a good job and everyone's happy. It's a good feeling."
The Bengals haven't had many good feelings like that against the Steelers since the Jeremy Hill Fumble, but that '15 Wild Card Game, that You Know Which Game, is starting to fade to orange and black. That's two straight wins over the Steelers for the first time since that '13 home opener.
"We knew we had to come in here and win. First division game, second road game. We didn't play well in the first road game so we had to come in here and play the way we did," Burrow said. "It wasn't perfect, we have a lot of room to improve on offense, but we got the job done.
"You continue to build the culture and build the winning culture. We're starting to understand how to win."
That was clear when Burrow and Chase took this game by the scuff of the neck with 24 seconds left in the first half. The Steelers had just doled out some of their signature misery with an excruciating 8:32 touchdown drive that tied the game at seven and for the 25th time 30 games against Cincinnati they made it hurt with a score in the final two minutes of the first half.
But Burrow reversed the trend when he got the ball back in the final minute. Another sure sign this thing may be turning is when Ingram was called for roughing the passer and with 27 seconds left and the ball at the 34, Burrow basically threw it up and let Chase do exactly that. Burrow gunned it deep down the left sideline into the end zone and nearly overthrew him. But Chase extended at the last instant and plucked it coming down.
"That's why you draft a guy like that," Burrow said.
Chase had been urging Burrow to take a shot. Let's face it. Chase is usually urging Burrow to go long.
"I was just telling him what I had seen from the corner and what I expected him to do and what Joe should do in that situation. I was just giving him thoughts on what we needed to do," Chase said. "(The cornerback) was just opening up his hips as soon as I go to him. He was just opening his hips real late. And I was telling Joe it would easy to take advantage of that."
A few minutes before Burrow signaled first down, Chase blew kisses to the Black and Gold throng after that end-of-half silencer. You have to go back to T.J. Houshmandzadeh shining his shoes with a Terrible Towel 16 years ago to recall a Bengals receiver having the final word with the Heinz crowd.
"It just felt night and day," Burrow said of last year's 36-10 loss here. "That was Week 9 I think it was? So that was the week before, two weeks before I got hurt. So that one kind of left a sour taste in my mouth. It was good to get this one."
Usually it's the vaunted Steeler defense leaving that bitterness. But not in this crossroads game. This time Burrow didn't get sacked or hit and it was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who got sacked four times and hit two more.
Not only that, he was picked off twice by Wilson as he emerges as one of the league's top backers. With 14 tackles, he played the best game by a Bengals backer since Vontaze Burfict in the Wild Card Game. In fact he became the first Cincy backer to have two picks in a game since Burfict in 2016.
Like Burfict, Wilson has impeccable instincts. The first pick was easy to explain. Left end Sam Hubbard drilled Roethlisberger to pop the ball up and he caught it. That set up the first touchdown. The second, which set up the last touchdown, was harder to explain.
"I don't know about that one," Wilson said. "He was scrambling so I was going to go track him down and tackle him. He ended up just throwing it. I didn't realize he was throwing it behind. Vonn (Bell) got after me a little bit. He was hoping that would be his interception on that one."
With five interceptions in 15 games, Wilson now has as many career picks as such Bengals luminaries at backer as Burfict, Takeo Spikes and Glenn Cameron. He knows that they committed history on Sunday winning here.
"Last year, it I think it was toward the end of the year and we were already kind of out of the playoff race," Wilson said of the win over the Steelers. 'This one, we're starting the season off on a good note, I think. And really carrying off from that win … We just got to believe that we can beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are a historically great organization so anytime you can come away with a win against them is huge especially in a divisional matchup."
It sure seemed like a crossroads game as edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, the big catch in free agency who had a sack for the second straight Sunday, took the media podium after his first game against the Steelers wearing a Reds ball cap.
"I love Cincinnati." Hendrickson said. "I'm happy to be here."
It was that kind of day in the crossroads.