!(http://www.gopjn.com/t/4-77849-83508-55814)PITTSBURGH — Even the Heinz Field clock knew the story.
There were 14 seconds left in Sunday's play-in game for the playoffs. Matching the uniform number of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. From the Steelers 46, he needed about a dozen yards to get kicker Josh Brown close enough to try a field goal to break a 10-10 tie.
Dalton did more than that. He zipped a 21-yard rope on a corner route to wide receiver A.J. Green on time, on rhythm and on the money against the NFL's No. 1 defense for a wild card berth on a play that led Green out of bounds with eight seconds left, set up Josh Brown's 43-yard field goal, and put the AFC North firmly in transition with a 13-10 victory that eliminated the arch-rival Steelers and gave the Green-Dalton Bengals their second straight postseason berth.
The namesakes of the Green-Dalton era did exactly what they had to do Sunday and grabbed the game by the throat at the end. The resourceful Dalton willed his way to the biggest victory of his career with his lowest passer rating in a win (58.8) and like a savvy welterweight Green bobbed and weaved between the ropes of the top-ranked Steelers defense for 10 catches and 116 split-decision yards.
Mark it down. At age 25, Dalton has done what Boomer Esiason and Carson Palmer never did in taking the Bengals to back-to-back playoff berths, and the only other man to do it, the first No. 14, Ken Anderson, was 33.
"We've been in the playoffs the first two years I've been in the league; not a lot of people can say that they've done that," said Dalton, the seventh quarterback to do it since the merger. "The history is that we haven't been two years in a row for the last 30 years, but since I have been here I haven't known that. My class, me, A.J., some of these other guys. We come in and we expect to get to the playoffs. We are in the right position at the end of the season. You want to be in position to control your own destiny, and we were able to do that this year. And now it's time to really make a run at it."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth knew exactly what he had just seen after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's interception on the previous snap gave Dalton another shot.
"Look at it," Whitworth said. "Ben had a chance to get the winning field goal and they couldn't get it close enough and it missed. Then he threw the interception and when Andy had his chance, he made the play to A.J. to get close enough to win it. Head-to-head for the playoffs and Andy beat him. That's the kind of competitor he is."
As nose man Domata Peko said after his defense made it all possible with a 12-for-14 effort on third down, "You couldn't have written it any better than to come in here to Pittsburgh, our arch-rival, and to have to win to make the playoffs. And to fight through adversity and get this win. It's a great win for the city and for the organization."
It was a classic grind job that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis loves to oversee because there were enough redemption stories over 60 minutes to fill a Lifetime Channel marathon channel.
There was Reggie Nelson coming up with the big interception after blowing a big blitz on Pittsburgh's only touchdown. There were all the Bengals from '05 and '06 that had their hearts broken by the Steelers in games like this. There was Green coming up with the play of the game after dropping a bomb in the red zone in the third quarter and losing a fumble at the Steelers 28 in the fourth quarter.
And there was Lewis.
After he and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had more heads scratching than Algebra with some curious decisions in the second half, Lewis, to his credit, came into his postgame news conference with a big smile and said his team bailed him out.
In the third quarter he eschewed a 51-yard field goal and went for it on fourth-and-22 from the Steelers 33. In the fourth quarter with 3:18 left, he went for a 56-yard field goal that missed and ended up giving the ball to Roethlisberger at his own 46, almost certain death at the hands of the two-minute maven needing just a field goal.
"We were wondering what we were doing on that fourth-and-22," said safety Chris Crocker. "It was like, 'What are we doing, what are we doing?' But on the 56-yarder, it was like, 'Hey, let's go out and stop them.' We'd been doing it all day."
Right end Michael Johnson remembered wondering on the 56-yarder, "Shouldn't we be punting this?"
"But then it was out of my mind," Johnson said. "It didn't matter. So what?"
Green, frustrated on one catch back in the Oct. 21 loss to Pittsburgh in Cincinnati, staged a lesson in perseverance.
"They weren't going to let me get deep," Green said. "I was kind of getting tired on the sidelines with everyone coming over and telling me not to worry about (the fumble). I wanted to get back out there as fast as I could."
And then there was Dalton. Like Green, 0-3 against the Steelers, the keepers of the AFC North flame, he was looking to stake the Green-Dalton's claim on the future of the division. Fitting, indeed, it came down to that 21-yarder to set up the winner.
"I call A.J. 'Superman,' " said wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. "I told him, 'You're going to make a big play for us when we need it. Superman don't worry about that.' "
Center Kyle Cook, who made every snap in his first start of the season, said with 14 seconds left the huddle was noisy with confidence.
"All we needed to do was give Andy time. That 's what we were saying. Just give him time and he'll find somebody," Cook said.
Whitworth said he perked up when he heard the call because he has seen Green beat plenty of defenders with the corner route. Green's eyes lit up when he saw cornerback Keenan Lewis back up from the line of scrimmage. Lewis, already limping with knee and hip problems, had no shot at breaking on the ball that Dalton would string to the sideline.
"I thought he had outside leverage, but I was able to get there," Green said.
"It wasn't an easy catch," said safety Ryan Clark. "It was a Pro Bowl player making a big play. I think we did a good job on him all day, but when it was time for him to make a play, he did."
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had blitzed all game and dared Dalton and Green to beat him with a lot of one-on-one coverage on the outside. It took the final 14 seconds, but they did.
"You have 14 seconds left. You need to get at least a first down if not more. Great play call. That's on those guys [giving me time] on some of these deeper throws," Dalton said. "It just gave me a little bit of time. They did exactly what we wanted. We made a huge play. AJ made a great catch. The line did a good job, put us in position to win the game.
"They weren't on him. (Lewis was) soft. He was able to cross the corner's face and when he did that I was able to put the ball in a spot where only A.J. could make the play."
Dalton could convert just four of 15 third downs and that will happen when defenses play eight and nine in the box and blitz every down and hold you to 14 yards rushing on 16 carries, Cincinnati's second lowest of all-time next to the four Marvin Lewis's Ravens gave them on Sept. 24, 2000.
But Dalton found a way the Bengals hopes marks an AFC North transition.
"It's a big win for the city of Cincinnati. I know they just think that there's some complex. There's no complex. You just have to come play and win," Lewis said. "This group in there has very little history of anything. You play football out here every 60 minutes, their guys against our guys. That's what it comes down to. We had some guys that were frustrated today at times. We did a good job of hanging in there and not flinching and making big plays."
After the biggest win in the Green-Dalton era, they know what the next one is.
A postseason win.
"I feel like we're in a really good position now; we have full confidence in everybody," Dalton said. "Marvin has a lot of confidence in the offense. He was going for it on fourth downs, we're being aggressive and things like that. We've got to take this attitude into the playoffs."