PITTSBURGH - In one of the best defensive efforts by a Marvin Lewis-led Bengals defense, the much-maligned unit didn't allow the high-powered Steelers' fourth-ranked offense a touchdown in the first 41 minutes of Sunday's finale.
But they couldn't get enough help from their offense against Pittsburgh's desperate bid for a win to make the postseason. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who at one point threw more passes (45) than the Bengals had plays (42), nickel-and-dimed down the field to beat the Bengals inside the last two minutes for the third straight game, 16-13.
The big play was a 20-yard pass to running back James Conner and rookie Matt McCrane coaxed through a 35-yard field goal to win it on the first snap after the two-minute warning.
The Bengals tied at 13-13 with 6:17 left on Randy Bullock's 32-yard field goal that was set up by their first 50-yard play of the season when running back Joe Mixon sprinted out from right guard for 51 yards that featured an ungodly juke past safety Jordan Dangerfield. That put him at 105 yards on 13 carries to pretty much secure the AFC rushing title. But it's all they had. Mixon had more yards than quarterback Jeff Driskel had passing (95).
But the Bengals simply couldn't finish anything on offense. On third-and-two from the Steelers 7, Andre Smith, playing left tackle for the injured Cordy Glenn, gave up a sack to defensive end Cameron Heyward to bring on Bullock.
McCrane's dying quail of a 49-yarder into the Heinz Field open end with 8:35 left broke a 10-10 tie and came after the Bengals offense failed to cross its own 30 for the entire third quarter. The Steelers hammered out a 13-play drive at resolute defense that was on the field for 7:19 before allowing the go-ahead field goal. Roethlisberger barely converted a fourth-and-four when he hit Conner out of the backfield working against linebacker Nick Vigil.
The Bengals gave up their three biggest plays of the night on three consecutive snaps late in the third quarter as the Steelers tied it. Rookie wide receiver James Washington made his longest catch of the season, a 47-yarder down the seam working against cornerback KeiVarae Russell in the slot. After Conner zipped for 16 yards down the left sideline, Russell missed a tackle on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on the perimeter and the Steelers' second-year wide receiver went in from 11 yards out to tie it with 3:50 left in the third quarter.
The Bengals held Pittsburgh to two third downs on its first eight tries and one of the big reasons was the inspired play of Vigil.
Vigil was all over the place, especially on the first series of the second half when he covered a couple of short passes over the middle to stop the drive that began with great field position at the Pittsburgh 45. He finished the game with a team-best 17 tackles.
That bailed out the Bengals offense and special teams. Starting the second half rookie wide receiver Auden Tate committed a hold on the kick return and right tackle Bobby Hart gave up a sack to T.J. Watt.
The Bengals offense just couldn't untracked. Tate, in the game because Cody Core dislocated his elbow in the first half, committed a hold on a bubble screen and that set up a sack on the left side of the Bengals offensive line adjusting to right tackle Andre Smith coming off the bench to play for injured left tackle Cordy Glenn.
But Vigil and the defense kept coming. When he pulled off a blitz on a stunt and forced a third-down incompletion with 6:45 left in the third quarter, the Steelers had just 150 yards and Roethlisberger had 130 of them on 18 of 27 passing.
But the Bengals offense could only respond with a three-and-out. Mixon was stuffed for no gain on second-and-10 and when Smith false started, the drive was done.
The Bengals defense, enduring its toughest year of the franchise's 51 seasons, pitched a beauty in the first half when they held the Steelers scoreless until the half-time gun as they took a 10-3 halftime lead.
When Bullock kicked a 49-yard field goal into the open end of Heinz Field to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead with 2:12 left in the first half, the Steelers had just 92 yards with only 27 on the ground.
In Driskel's crispest passing day yet, he found wide receiver Alex Erickson for career-high five catches and 53 yards, most on Bullock's field-goal drive on short slants over the middle. Driskel finished the half seven of 12 for 69 yards.
But that drive was short-circuited on right guard Alex Redmond's unnecessary roughness penalty and after Bullock's kick went through, Redmond was called for another one and basically gave the Steelers' McCrane's 37-yard field goal because the penalty was accessed on the kickoff and the Pittsburgh got the ball at their own 45.
It was an ironic way for the Bengals defense to set the league record for most points allowed in a single quarter, 203 in the second. And that's because it was the 13th game this season they gave up points in the final two minutes of the half.
But the Bengals did it as the home crowd booed Roethlisberger finishing a choppy first half with 15 of 22 passing for 123 yards and a uncharacteristic 63.3 passer rating without injured Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown.
His numbers were bad because sixth-year safety Shawn Williams ripped off the first-pick six of his career to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 12:37 left in the Roethlisberger appeared to think he had a free play, but the Bengals weren't called for being in the neutral zone on a blitz.
Williams then dropped into a zone and when Roethlisberger underthrew wide receiver Smith-Schuster over the middle, Williams leaped for the catch and then busted up the left sideline for a 58-yard return.
It was Williams' team-leading fifth interception and the Bengals' first pick since he had a pick in Baltimore on Nov. 18 to break a five-game drought.
Defensive tackle Christian Ringo ended the Steelers' fourth drive of the day with a sack of Roethlisberger thanks to help from defensive tackle Geno Atkins and end Sam Hubbard's pressure.
Mixon, who came in with a 91-yard lead in the AFC rushing race, didn't play on all three snaps in the Bengals' first drive and the Bengals had a three-and-out when two runs by running back Giovani Bernard and a quick throw to Erickson came up a yard short.
Mixon came in on the second drive and found it tough going against the Steelers' 10-man box with just 18 yards on six carries and his longest run was eight yards.
The Bengals defense held up on the first drive of the game despite tight end Vance McDonald converting a screen on third-and-11. Atkins had good penetration on a four-yard loss on a reverse, Atkins and Williams teamed to drop Conner on a short gain and cornerback William Jackson had great coverage on a third-down slant to Smith-Schuster. Then when the Steelers went for it on fourth-and-one from their 49, the Bengals didn't jump offsides when Roethlisberger sent everyone in motion, and forced a punt.
Photos from the final regular season game of 2018 as the Bengals travel to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Then the Bengals staged a three-and-out on the next series when defensive tackle Andrew Billings had great penetration on the first snap and dropped running back Jaylen Samuels for a two-yard loss. But the Bengals couldn't take advantage of the field position when safety Clayton Fejedelem was called for a block in the back on the punt.
But Erickson erased it when he made a he made a nice catch on third down on a ball thrown behind him. That overcame wide receiver John Ross' drop on second down on the sidelines.
Then Driskel outran linebacker Bud Dupree on a third-and-eight scramble he converted with a flashy scramble to get the Bengals to their 48.
But on the next snap the Bengals blitzed linebacker L.J. Fort and Erickson, in the slot couldn't get him and Driskel was sacked. The Steelers blitzed again on second down and Driskel threw a good deep ball despite getting blown up, but wide receiver Cody Core saw the ball knocked away as he landed on his left elbow and he left the field with an air cast.
Another devastating injury for the receivers in a game they already started without starters A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd.
Then on third down Driskel tried to throw a screen to Bernard, but defensive end Stephon Tuitt got his hand on the ball for the incompletion. On the punt the Bengals committed their league-leading 29th false start when linebacker Brandon Bell moved early.