PITTSBURGH _ Jake Browning has carried the Bengals into this AFC playoff race and after Saturday's 34-11 loss to the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium left both at 8-7 with Pittsburgh having the upper hand because of the season sweep, he still believes he is.
"The playoffs, I don't know. I've been ignoring that in general," said Browning after the Bengals continue to hang by a strand. "I'm going to learn from this. A lot of quarterbacks have bad games. I had a bad game. It's how you respond. That's where I am and that's where we're at as a team."
Browning has been historically good in his last three starts, but the Steelers repeated history and beat him like they did in his first start back at Paycor Stadium on Nov. 26. Only this time they did it with three interceptions for his first multiple-pick game.
The first one was the most damaging. After falling behind, 7-0, Browning drove the Bengals right back to the Steelers 15 and faced a third-and-nine. As he rolled away from the rush, he thought he was throwing it away. Instead, he lofted it into a crowd of three Steelers in the end zone and Patrick Peterson, making the transition from cornerback to safety, came up with his 36th interception as the league's active leader.
"Stupid," Browning said. "I was trying to throw it out of the back of the end zone and then the whole crowd went crazy. I didn't even know it was picked.
"Throw it away, kick the field goal. You never know what might happen."
Browning had been in the top five of guys making their first four NFL starts In completion percentage, yards, passer rating, you name it. But not in his fifth start. Well, maybe yards. He had 335 for his third 300-yard game.
"I have to find a way to turn those interceptions into incompletions, checkdowns, something," Browning said.
TEE BALL: Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins came up big in place of the injured Ja'Marr Chase with a season-high 140 yards capped off by the longest play of his career, an 80-yard touchdown off a slant-and-gone in the middle of the field. It's been quite a week for Higgins. Last week he had a spectacular tying touchdown in the last minute.
"I ran a little slant route. I think the backer turned to pass me off and pick me up and he was a little too late," Higgins said. "That gave me room. It was an open field, I saw the green grass. The rest is history."
Down 21-0, the Bengals had a shot to crawl back into it late in the second quarter on a fourth-and-half-a-yard from the Steelers 5. Steelers cornerback Joey Porter Jr. was draped all over Higgins in the left corner of the end zone on a pass that fell short. Porter is among the league leaders in penalties, but Higgins said, "I'll just say they made a good play."
"Very frustrating. Jake got hit. Nobody's fault," Higgins said. "If we got that one, you never know. The game could have turned around there."
DECEMBER COAL: It was the Bengals' first December loss since the Dec. 12, 2021 overtime verdict to the 49ers at Paycor, breaking the NFL's longest December winning streak at nine. The Bengals came in tied with the fewest turnovers in the NFL with 12.
"In all three phases and that was turnovers on offense and missed opportunities there," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. "This is a humbling league. This is a humbling day. And we're going to have to quickly be able to make corrections and put them behind us. And we have plenty to play for next week in Kansas City."
BY GEORGE: Steelers wide receiver George Pickens may not like to block, but he made some game-changing long catches in racking up a career-high 195 yards on four catches. He got past cornerback Chidobe Awuzie for a 66-yard touchdown catch to make it 31-8 and he did it again for 44 yards on third-and-one at the end of the half to set up a field goal.
"I had a couple of bad plays, stuff that I knew was coming," Awuzie said. "Stuff I just didn't react to properly. I felt like I let my teammates down."