PITTSBURGH — The Bengals walked on to Sunday night's national stage at Heinz Field knowing a win would put them into the second seed in the AFC playoff picture. But what ensued in stunning fashion was the most bitter loss in the 46-game A.J. Green-Andy Dalton era, a 30-20 verdict in which the Steelers outplayed them in every category as the 9-5 Bengals exited stage right not only without the second seed but also trying to protect what has become a slim game-and-a half lead over idle Baltimore in the AFC North before the Ravens game in Detroit on Monday night.
Down 27-7 at halftime after losing punter Kevin Huber to a fractured jaw and SAM linebacker James Harrison to a concussion, the Bengals never exerted their physical nature that lifted them into control of the division. The Bengals cut the lead to 30-14, but the drive took seven minutes. It ended on tight end Tyler Eifert's one-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter.
The Bengals made it 30-20 when quarterback Andy Dalton hit wide-open wide receiver Marvin Jones for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 5:46 left in the game. But when Dalton tried quickly to hit Eifert split wide to the left for the two-point conversion, rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones jumped up and blocked it at the line of scrimmage. The Bengals then chose to kick it deep.
Too much damage had come early at the hands of the 6-8 Steelers in an oddly laid-back environment with a crowd of just 45,873. The final nail came fittingly on two missed tackles with less than five minutes left in the game. The Bengals missed tackles all night and on this third-and-seven cornerbacks Adam Jones and Chris Crocker had wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders set up before the sticks, but they missed him and he made it by a yard to keep the chains moving.
As good as the special teams have been for the Bengals this season, they were as horrific as they've ever been in the 11 seasons of head coach Marvin Lewis in Sunday's first quarter as three major gaffes allowed the Steelers to jump to a 21-0 lead in the game's first 13:48 that later grew to 24-0. It was the first time the Bengals have allowed 21 points in a first quarter since the 1986 season.
The carnage culminated when Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown feasted on Huber's punt right down the middle of the field and badly faked out rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche, the special teams' leading tackler, before ripping up the middle for a 67-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead. It was the first punt return for a score against the Bengals since Brown did it here two years ago. And to top it off, Huber was drilled in the mouth by linebacker Terence Garvin on a pancake block and had to leave with a fractured jaw.
Kicker Mike Nugent was called on to make his first NFL punt since his rookie year in 2005 as it looked like the Bengals lost one of the NFL's best punters for the rest of the year. Ten minutes after Huber's injury, the Bengals received texts from two agents representing punters.
Special teams didn't exactly get a lot of help. Cincinnati's running game was supposed to finally stand up to a Steelers run defense ranked 24th in the NFL. But the Bengals dropped back to throw five of their first nine snaps and when they tried to run, were often beaten by unblocked men. The Bengals finished with just 57 yards rushing on 22 carries.
And they suffered an emotional downer when Harrison, the former Steelers Pro Bowler, made his Heinz return and left early in the game with a concussion, leaving the defense without another pass rusher. Nothing went right or well in a first half that was the worst in the Green-Dalton era. While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit his first 12 passes, Dalton started 2-for-10 and finished the half just 7-of-17 passing for 65 yards as he was bothered by the rush, no running game, and his receivers rarely got open. Wide receiver A.J. Green also had two drops as the game veered into the middle of the third quarter.
The Bengals picked up nine yards on their first offensive snap on Dalton's pass to Green to the Bengals 16. But on second down Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was all over a bubble screen to wide receiver Marvin Jones and actually should have pick-sixed it, but it was incomplete. Then on third-and-one the Steelers stuffed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis on his specialty when the Steelers stood up the right side. It was the fourth time in nine tries BJGE got stopped this year on third-and-one after missing only one all last year.
Then Huber, who was such a big factor in winning here last year with a 48.3-yard net, impacted it the other way. He dropped Clark Harris's snap outside the end zone to give the Steelers the ball on the one-inch line, where rookie Le'Veon Bell cashed in to give Pittsburgh a 7-0 lead five minutes into the game.
Then another special teams snafu cost the Bengals field position on the ensuing kickoff on a curious call. Running back Cedric Peerman waved off kick returner Brandon Tate on a short kick and ran it out to his own 44, but he was called for calling a fair catch, so the Bengals had another drive start inside the 10. Then right tackle Andre Smith had a false start and on third-and-long the Bengals gave up their first sack in four games when defensive lineman Ziggy Hood beat them through the middle.
Huber got off a 48-yard punt, but the Steelers still had great field position at the Bengals 47 and when they went for it on fourth-and-four from the Bengals 31, Bell beat WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict for a 16-yard run-and-catch. Then on second-and-seven from the 12, the Bengals rushed two and dropped nine and Roethlisberger had about eight seconds to find Brown for a 12-yard touchdown in the middle of the end zone.
The proud Bengals defensive front really struggled in the first half against the rather pedestrian Steelers offensive line that came into the game with the NFL's next-to-worst running game. The Bengals couldn't get any pressure from a four-man rush, which is their signature, and Roethlisberger pretty much had his way on 20-of-25 passing for 191 yards for the game in lifting his record to 15-6 against Cincinnati.
Missed tackles were also a huge problem. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga whiffed on Sanders after his catch and Sanders turned it into a 21-yard play. Then cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick tried to make a big hit on Brown after a catch, but he couldn't bring him down on what turned into an 11-yard gain. The Steelers rushed for just 63 yards in the half, but the Bengals allowed some uncharacteristic long runs, such as a 12-yarder from Felix Jones and a 10-yarder from Jonathan Dwyer.
The Steelers tacked on field goals of 25 and 45 yards by Shaun Suisham, the last one with 1:14 left in the half to make it 27-7. Even the lone Bengals touchdown was a grind, needing Dalton's quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one from the 3 to set up Giovani Bernard's one-yard touchdown with 5:14 left in the half.
With 1:14 left in the half the Bengals tried to get something going, but on first down Dalton sailed a pass over the head of Marvin Jones on the sideline.
The clubs traded turnovers to start the second half, Polamalu forcing a fumble by Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham the Cincinnati 48, and then Roethlisberger hanging one up deep to Sanders in the wind that cornerback Adam Jones came back on to pick off at the Bengals 2.
It was a tough start for Kirkpatrick. On the first snap of his first NFL start he was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty and then two plays later he missed Bell after a catch and that turned into a 12-yard gain.
Gresham didn't come back into the game after he hurt his hip in the third quarter.
*PREGAME NOTES: *As expected Dre Kirkpatrick made his first NFL start Sunday night at Heinz Field when he replaced injured left cornerback Terence Newman against the Steelers. Kirkpatrick gets the nod in his 30th game since he was drafted in the first round out of Alabama in 2012.
Right guard Kevin Zeitler, the guy the Bengals took 10 picks after Kirkpatrick in the first round, was active again after going through his first full week of practice since injuring his foot Nov. 10. Mike Pollack got his fourth straight start in Zeitler's spot Sunday, but it's believed Zeitler is going to get some snaps in a kind of rotation.
Besides Newman, also inactive for the Bengals were wide receivers Dane Sanzenbacher and Ryan Whalen, running back Rex Burkhead, tight end Orson Charles, offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson and defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi.
SEED MONEY: The first piece of the puzzle fell into place Sunday afternoon.
The 9-4 Bengals went into Sunday night's game with the chance to move into the second seed in the AFC playoff picture with a win over the Steelers in the wake of the Dolphins' 24-20 victory over the Patriots in Miami.
The Patriots fell to 10-4, but the Bengals win a tiebreaker over New England by virtue of Cincinnati's 13-6 victory over the Pats on Oct. 6 at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals are a game behind top-seed and 11-3 Denver, but if they can beat the Steelers the team they're looking at is Baltimore. If the Ravens lose Monday night in Detroit and the Bengals beat the Steelers, Cincinnati is the AFC North champ for the second time in five seasons. The 7-6 Ravens are also playing for the sixth and final seed and trail the 8-6 Dolphins, but Baltimore holds the tiebreaker with an Oct. 6 win in Miami.
WIND TUNNEL: The game got underway in a stiff wind of 23 miles per hour and after the Bengals lost the coin toss, Cincinnati's Mike Nugent kicked off the game with the wind.