Andy Dalton flirted with history late into Saturday night.
It looked for all the world like AJ McCarron had decided this draining 15-rounder with a thunderous right hand that both electrified the Paul Brown Stadium crowd of 63,257 and shocked the swaggering Steelers to give the Bengals a 16-15 lead with 1:50 left in Saturday's Wild Card Game.
When he saw wide receiver A.J. Green slither into the end zone with his 25-yard touchdown pass, a yard for every year of the drought, he looked to the sky and the skyline.
"I was happy for the city," McCarron said of his thoughts before it all blew up quite quickly in an 18-16 loss. "That was the biggest thing. I wanted to bring the city the first play-off win in a long time. That was my biggest driving force.
"The stadium just erupted. You could tell they were at a whole another level. It was like we finally did it. We're finally here. It just sucked. It really sucks. I wanted it bad for the city."
A total of 110 seconds. That's how far McCarron was from taking on Tom Brady in Foxboro after taking down Ben Roethlisberger in sneak peek at Canton. After the game Andy Dalton said he wasn't sure if he could have played next Saturday with his fractured throwing thumb.
"I'm proud of AJ. He took on a tough role. He took on a team that is a contender and to stand in there and figure everything out and the way and manner he had to do it, it was great,' said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We knew a lot of things were going to be ugly at times. But he just went out there with every effort he had. I couldn't be more proud of him."
McCarron called it a "weird," night all the way around. Maybe the weirdest thing of all is that a game that will be remembered for the Bengals losing their cool is a game McCarron nearly tamed with his icy resilience.
What more could you want from a kid in his fourth NFL start? Not only had he stood brazenly in the pocket on a dark and stormy night to construct the greatest comeback in a Bengals' postseason history fraught with Boomers and Andersons and Daltons, he had pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in NFL post-season history with 16 unanswered points in a quarter that began with the Steelers leading, 15-0.
How dark and stormy? As he threw a deep ball to wide receiver Marvin Jones on third-and-13 from his 44 in a scoreless game, it slipped out of his hands and fluttered five yards short of Jones, where cornerback Antwon Blake grabbed it at the Steelers 24. A 35-yard return set up the game's first score, a 39-yard field goal with 2:27 left in the half.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium for the Wild Card playoff game 1/9/2016
"Every time we got the ball it was a freaking monsoon. Every time they got the ball, it wasn't," McCarron said. "The ball was slippery all night."
So after the pick, McCarron tried a leather glove on his throwing hand whenever it was raining. But the off-and-on rain made him put the glove on for good. He's worn one on his right hand before, but this was the first time in the rain.
The leather met the road in the fourth quarter. He arrived for the final frame completing just 14 of 26 for 114 yards. But he was just starting and went nine for his next 15 for 98 yards.
And Green chose the perfect time to break out of his post season doldrums 13 catches for 161 yards and no TDs in three games with 34 of his 71 yards coming in that fourth quarter.
But it should read 76 of his 113 yards because on the third snap of the fourth quarter he drew a 42-yard pass interference penalty on safety Will Allen that put the ball on the Steelers 4 and set up running back Jeremy Hill's one-yard TD run to cut the lead to 15-7 with 13:57 left in the game.
"I wanted the ball. That's what I told AJ and he made the throws to get it to me," Green said.
It was an up and in and McCarron said he unloaded it early to avoid a twist up front; "I tried to throw it as high as I could so he could make play on it."
But those deep balls were few and far between on a night McCarron said the Steelers kept their safeties high. He went underneath in the next drive, dumping it to Hill for passes of 11 and 13 yards and when tight end Tyler Eifert atoned for a 20-yard drop with a diving 18-yard catch, Mike Nugent hit a 36-yard field goal to cut it to 15-10.
After Adam Jones's 24-yard punt return gave McCarron the ball at the Steelers 45 with 3:28 left, he noticed the huddle.
"I felt like everyone for that drive just had ice cold water in their veins," McCarron said. "Everybody was so calm and never getting on each other. The mentality was, 'Crap happens. (We'll overcome it)."
On third-and-seven, McCarron and Green both saw Cover Two. McCarron pump faked safety Mike Mitchell's way and that left Green open for a leaping catch at the one before stepping in for that first post-season TD.
"We started going fast. We played well up tempo," McCarron said. "I knew all I had to do was hold Mike Mitchell with my eyes. I've done that before. I knew the corner would fall off. I just had to throw it early and AJ made a great catch."
But instead of going down in history, McCarron's great comeback has been co-signed to the heap where the losers go. The Bengals now have their Earnest Byner fumble and their Joe Pisarcik moment with Hill's fumble.
"We trust J. Hill. We thought we'd be able to run the clock out," McCarron said.
Not on this day.
"I'm at a loss for words," said McCarron who compared the empty feeling to the day Alabama lost to Auburn on a returned field goal for a TD. "I don't know how we lose this game."
Green must have read his mind beyond the fourth quarter.
"I have no words," he said.