PITTSBURGH – There was a playoff spot clinched Sunday at Heinz Field.
Only it wasn’t clinched by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cincinnati turned a pair of Ben Roethlisberger interceptions into 10 points – including the game-winning 43-yard field goal by Josh Brown with four seconds remaining – as the Bengals clinched the final spot in the AFC playoffs with a 13-10 victory over the Steelers before a stunned crowd at Heinz Field.
“I told them thanks for bailing me out, plain, flat and simple,” said Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis, a McDonald native. “I make decisions to try to win the game. It kind of backfired on me a little bit.”
Lewis was talking about thanking his own players. He could just have easily have been talking about the Steelers.
In a game they needed to win to stay alive for a spot in the postseason, the Steelers (7-8) let the Bengals (9-6) off the hook. Pittsburgh entered the game needing to win its final two games to earn a playoff berth.
Now, the Steelers will face the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Heinz Field with nothing to play for but pride.
“It hurts bad, not going to the playoffs,” said Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis, who played despite being hobbled by hip and knee injuries. “We’re going to be home with the rest of them.”
And, as has been the case for many of their losses, the Steelers have only themselves to blame.
The Steelers took over possession of the ball at their own 11-yard line with 44 seconds remaining following a Cincinnati punt. Pittsburgh moved out to the 29 on a pass to Isaac Redman and a five-yard delay of game penalty against linebacker Vontez Burfict for not allowing Redman to get up after being tackled.
“Your first thought is, ‘Why aren’t we just taking a knee and going into overtime?’” said Steelers linebacker Larry Foote. “But I’ll ride with (Roethlisberger) any time. He’s the reason we’ve won two Super Bowls.”
This time, Roethlisberger was the reason they won’t get a chance to try to win a third this season.
Roethlisberger, who had an interception returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Leon Hall to account for Cincinnati’s lone touchdown, was picked off for a second time with 24 seconds remaining by safety Reggie Nelson at the Bengals’ 44.
Roethlisberger had scrambled out of the pocket to his right and wide receiver Mike Wallace broke open around midfield, but the pass was badly overthrown.
“It came off my hand high. As soon as it left my hand, I knew it,” Roethlisberger said.
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton threw a 21-yard pass to wideout A.J. Green, who caught 10 passes for 116 yards, and Brown, subbing for injured Mike Nugent, made the game-winning field goal to send the Bengals to the postseason for the first time in back-to-back seasons in 30 years.
It ruined perhaps the best effort of the season by the Steelers’ defense.
Pittsburgh had a season-high six sacks of Dalton, and cornerback Cortez Allen, subbing for injured Ike Taylor, had two interceptions and forced a fumble that the Steelers recovered.
The Bengals, who were limited to 14 rushing yards on 16 attempts, did not have an offensive touchdown and gained a combined 40 yards on their two field-goal drives, including Brown’s game-winner.
“I think we played well,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. “We needed one more play. We needed to not let them get into field-goal range at the end of the fourth and they did.”
The field goal was the second of the fourth quarter for Brown. Lewis inexplicably sent him out to attempt a 56-yarder with 3:22 remaining. The attempt fell far short and gave the Steelers the ball at their own 46.
Facing fourth-and-4 from the Cincinnati 36, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin sent Shaun Suisham out to attempt a 53-yard field goal with 1:51 remaining.
It fell short.
“We’ve got great confidence in Shaun, and rightfully so,” Tomlin said. “We wanted to give him an opportunity to do the job.”
Suisham also missed wide left from 24 yards in the second quarter because of a botched snap.
Following Suisham’s missed 53-yard attempt, the Steelers’ defense then forced a three-and-out to get the ball back at their own 11, settign the stage for the Bengals to win the game.
“This group in there has very little history of anything,” said Lewis.
Now, they do.
And the Steelers, who have a multitude of players who have both played in and won Super Bowls, can only watch the postseason.
“We should be (in), if it wasn’t for me,” said Roethlisberger, who was 14 of 28 for 220 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown late in the first half.
Odds and end zones
Steelers tight end Heath Miller suffered torn ACL and MCL ligaments in the fourth quarter … Running back Baron Batch suffered a broken arm covering a kickoff in the first half … Wallace has a hamstring injury that will require an MRI today … Roethlisberger was sacked four times, including 2 1/2 by defensive tackle Geno Atkins. ... Linebacker Lawrence Timmons had 10 tackles and two sacks for the Steelers … Rashard Mendenhall led Pittsburgh with 50 yards rushing on 11 carries in his first game since serving a one-game suspension for conduct deemed detrimental to the team.