PITTSBURGH - As always, the AFC North comes down to turnovers and the Steelers won the 2014 crown Sunday night at Heinz Field when the Bengals were driving for the winning touchdown and cornerback Antwon Blake ripped the ball from wide receiver A.J. Green at the Steelers 30 with 3:51 left to preserve Pittsburgh's 27-17 victory Sunday night at Heinz Field.
The 10-5-1 Bengals take that second place finish to Indianapolis for Sunday's 1 p.m. Wild Card Game while the 11-5 Steelers take the North title into Saturday night's home game against the Ravens.
Three plays after Green's fumble, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with wide receiver Antonio Brown for a 63-yard touchdown play that made it 27-17 with 2:50 left in the game. Brown, who stunned the Bengals with a 71-yard punt return in the first quarter, got behind cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick down the right sideline and then safety George Iloka missed the tackle as Brown finished with seven catches for 128 yards.
After Green's fumble, safety Mike Mitchell hit him with a helmet-to-helmet shot and Green left for the rest of the game with eight catches for 82 yards and is under the NFL's concussion protocol. After a tough start that featured two first-half picks, quarterback Andy Dalton finished 27 of 38 for 244 yards and an 83.7 passer rating.
Trailing 20-17, the Bengals had a shot to take the lead when they blew up a Steelers fake punt with six minutes left in the game. Punter Brad Wing tried an ill-advised pass and Bengals wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher came up with his first NFL interception at the Bengals 41. Green then fumbled at the end of a 17-yard play.
The Steelers used that age-old formula of a Dalton turnover and an Antonio Brown punt return touchdown to take control of the game with a 20-10 half-time lead.
After two big defensive stands to open the second half, the last one ending on safety Reggie Nelson's interception, the Bengals passing game finally got off the ground against Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's two deep zone designed to take away the deep ball to Green.
Dalton opted to go underneath on a 15-play drive that consumed 7:29 and ended on his five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham in the flat that cut the lead to 20-17 with 11:14 left in the game.
Going into the drive Green had just two catches for 15 yards, but he had four catches in the march for 44 yards, putting him over 1,000 yards for the season. The Bengals stayed true to the running game as running back Jeremy Hill finished the drive with 95 yards on 21 carries. He ended up with 100 yards on 23 carries, five yards shy of the club rookie record.
The Bengals got the ball at the beginning of the second half, but despite converting a fourth-and-one on a Dalton sneak, they could get nothing in the passing game. They had the ball inside the 40, but Dalton got off bad back-to-back throws. He missed low to the wide-open Green and he was nowhere near wide receiver Brandon Tate on a sideline route on a third-down pass.
Even though 50-yard field goals are rare at Heinz, especially kicking to the closed end, head coach Marvin Lewis opted to try one at the end of the 10-play drive and Mike Nugent was wide right, ending his skein of 15 straight since the Carolina miss.
But the Bengals defense offered a nice three-and-out (dumping running back Le'Veon Bell for no gain), but their offense, particularly their down-field passing game, was no help. A screen and a one-yard run for Hill set up a third-and-four and Dalton wasted no time getting out of the pocket on a rush up the middle and his scramble was short of the first down and the Steelers.
The defense offered another big stand in response. Safety Reggie Nelson picked off Roethlisberger for the third time since 2012 when he tried to get it to Antonio Brown and it took the Steelers out of field-goal range. Big Ben still threw for 317 yards even though the Bengals stoned Bell on 20 yards on eight rushes.
Pittsburgh drove down the field with the help of a 19-yard pass to Bell (80 yards receiving), on a play that ended when Bell injured his right knee on Nelson's tackle and the Steelers' 2,000-yard man went to the locker room for the rest of the game.
With Roethlisberger putting the finishing touches on his MVP season sitting in the pocket with no pressure from the Bengals, Dalton's late season struggles continued in the first half when he amassed just 81 yards passing and had two interceptions for a 62.8 passer rating in the half.
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger, never sacked by the Bengals this season, barely had to move in racking up a 96.8 rating on 16 of 26 for 191 yards. He finished at 96.1.
In a 10-10 game in the middle of the second quarter, Dalton, wild and high on Monday night, did it again. He made Green try and climb the ladder over the middle and it was simply too high. The leaping Green got both hands on it, but it deflected off his hands into those of cornerback Brice McCain and he returned it 31 yards to the Bengals 28.
Roethlisberger wasted no time getting a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Martavis Bryant, where he wasn't touched on a screen on the right perimeter. Tight end Heath Miller and wide receiver Markus Wheaton tied up safety George Iloka and Kirkpatrick to make the play go and give Pittsburgh a 17-10 lead with 5:52 left in the half.
Roethlisberger then worked the two-minute drill to perfection despite tight coverage and forced the first two penalties of the game to put the ball on the Bengals 10 with a minute left. But after cornerback Adam Jones was called for illegal hands to the face and cornerback Leon Hall was called for pass interference, Hall made a good break on the ball on third down for an incompletion to wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Shaun Suisham hit the upright, but his 25-yarder made it through with 40 seconds left in the half to make it 20-10.
For the second time in six days the Bengals offense answered adversity with a touchdown, this one on a 17-yard shovel pass from the scrambling Dalton to running back Giovani Bernard to tie the game at seven with 2:43 left in the first quarter.
On third-and-six Dalton stepped up in the pocket and started to run left and when he saw Bernard coming across the field to him, he shoveled it and Bernard leaped over McCain to get to the pylon.
Earlier in the drive, Lewis opted to go for it on fourth-and-three from the Steelers 35 and was rewarded with a 14-yard completion to wide receiver Brandon Tate out of the slot.
The Bengals went up 10-7 early in the second quarter when they forced the Steelers to make their first turnover in December when center Maurkice Pouncey was early with a snap and defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry recovered Roethlisberger's fumble at the Steelers 34.
With Bernard in the game instead of running back Jeremy Hill, the Bengals tried to punch it in, but once they got in the red zone they gave up a sack to left end Cameron Heyward and they had to settle for Mike Nugent's 39-yard field goal, his 15th straight since the Carolina miss.
The Bengals gold-plated special teams unit that has led the NFL from wire-to-wire this season melted on their first punt when Steelers wide receiver and arch-nemesis Antonio Brown took it 71 yards for a touchdown as Pittsburgh took a 7-0 lead with 10:50 left in the first quarter.
It was a replay of last season when Brown went 67 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter here at Heinz in Pittsburgh's 30-20 victory. The only difference is that Bengals punter Kevin Huber didn't break his jaw. Huber has allowed three touchdowns in his six-year career, all to Brown at Heinz since 2011.
Rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard, manning one gunner spot, couldn't haul down Brown as Brown went to his left. Brown then reversed field entirely and the other gunner, Chris Lewis-Harris,wasn't there. In fact, nobody was there and Brown was gone. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is usually the other gunner opposite Dennard, but Kirkpatrick got the start at corner in place of the ill Terence Newman.
The Bengals passing game got off to another shaky start. On the series after Brown's touchdown, Hill took off on three runs for 43 yards, one went for 22 yards when he followed pulling left guard Clint Boling to the right.
But once in the red zone, Dalton and Green suffered a drastic miscommunication on the right sideline. Dalton thought Green was running a double move, but he only made one move and Dalton ended up throwing a strike to McCain in the end zone for an interception.
Green wore a pad on his right bicep since his shoulder pads don't cover the deep bruise he sustained on Monday night's fourth snap. After ripping the Pittsburgh defense for a career-high 224 yards back on Dec. 7, Green faced different defensive backs on Sunday. Cornerback Ike Taylor, who shadowed Green in Cincinnati, and strong safety Troy Polamalu, who got a beat deep once by Green, were both inactive.
He got his first catch since the injury on the last play of the first quarter on a quick four-yard sideline route. Then on the first play of the second quarter he converted a third-and five when Dalton hit him for 11 yards inside the Steelers 20. But those were his only two catches on six targets in the half.
Tight end Jermaine Gresham left the game early with a back issue and their leading receiver was Bernard with five catches for 42 yards. Hill had 71 yards on 11 carries in the half.
The Bengals did a great job on Bell, holding him to 20 yards on seven carries in the half. But the Steelers spread the field to test the Bengals' ill secondary and Bell was their leading receiver in the half with five catches for 61 yards. Brown added five for 50 yards.
The Bengals just couldn't make any big plays while Pittsburgh had three passes of at least 20 yards.
PPREGAME NOTES: With Terence Newman under the weather and out of the game, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick drew the start for the Bengals Sunday night against the Steelers at Heinz Field off his AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Third cornerback Adam Jones, who spent his lunch hour on Sunday vomiting, was active, as was backup cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris in a secondary laid low by the flu. Starting SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, who missed Monday night's game with a hamstring injury, was active.
With Kirkpatrick starting, Lewis-Harris figures to take some of his gunner snaps as the Bengals try to quell Steelers punt returner Antonio Brown.
Also inactive were defensive tackle Devon Still, wide receiver Greg Little, offensive linemen T.J. Johnson and Tanner Hawkinson, and quarterback AJ McCarron. Wide receiver James Wright (knee), who hasn't played since Nov. 30, was inactive for the fourth straight game.
As expected, the Steelers de-activated strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor.
On Monday Kirkpatrick had two of the Bengals four interceptions of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, coming in a 1:34 span late in the 37-28 victory that put the Bengals in the playoffs.