PITTSBURGH – Coming off a pair of close losses that have left them clinging to slim playoff hopes and facing a division leader, the odds were stacked largely against the Steelers Sunday night.
But the Steelers weren’t listening to those who said they had no shot to win against a Cincinnati team that was playing for an opportunity to move into the second position in the AFC playoff race following New England’s loss at Miami earlier in the day.
The Steelers took advantage of a special teams gaffe and a punt return touchdown by Antonio Brown to jump out to a 21-0 first quarter lead and cruise to a 30-20 victory here over Cincinnati before a sparse crowd of 45,873.
Fans might not have been willing to brave the sub-freezing temperatures to go see a 5-8 team, but the Steelers weren’t about to lie down against a bitter division rival.
“Maybe to the outside world it looked like we had nothing to compete for,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. “We did. We showed that. We wanted to win.”
With the victory, the Steelers (6-8) kept their fading playoff hopes alive for one more week. Though Miami, which won in Pittsburgh last week, beat the Patriots to get to 8-6, the Steelers could still get into the postseason if the win their final two games, the Dolphins lose their final two and the Jets also get to 8-8. The Steelers could also get in if Baltimore gets to 8-8 as well based on a better division record.
In other words, it’s still a long shot, but a shot nonetheless.
And they rode an early wave to a 21-0 first quarter lead – the team’s largest in the opening quarter since a 2004 regular season game against New England – to victory to do so.
Following a Steelers punt from the Cincinnati 37 that was downed at the 7, Pittsburgh forced a three-and-out by the Bengals. But punter Kevin Huber was unable to handle the snap and was tackled at the 1 by Will Allen.
Le’Veon Bell scored from there to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead.
The Steelers went up 14-0 on their second possession on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Brown, then took control following Cincinnati’s second three-and-out on its third possession.
Huber hit a punt just 38 yards into the swirling winds – which were gusting to 20 miles per hour, making the wind chill factor 12 degrees – and Brown ran under it at the Pittsburgh 33 and raced up the middle of Cincinnati’s coverage unit for a 67-yard touchdown.
Rookie linebacker Terence Garvin put a huge hit on Huber, who was among the last line of defense, knocking him out of the game with a broken jaw and concussion.
“I just saw a white shirt and hit it,” said Garvin. “I didn’t know it was the punter.”
That left the Bengals with placekicker Mike Nugent to handle all of the kicking duties the remainder of the game.
“We rode the wave that special teams provided early on in the first half with a short field on the botched punt and then the punt return,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
It would be all the Steelers would need.
By the time Cincinnati (9-5) finally scored a touchdown – on a 1-yard Giovanni Bernard touchdown run with 5:19 remaining in the second quarter – the Steelers had added the first of three Shaun Suisham field goals in the game.
The Bengals didn’t score again until the second play of the fourth quarter, when, down 30-7, they got a 1-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to tight end Tyler Eifert.
Cincinnati scored again on a 13-yard TD pass from Dalton to Marvin Jones with 5:51 remaining, but Jarvis Jones batted down a two-point conversion try to keep the deficit at 10 points.
“We didn’t make anything happen,” said Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis, a McDonald native and Fort Cherry High School graduate. “We didn’t make any plays, create any opportunities or make plays early in the football game.”
For the Steelers, it was a statement that they won’t quit on the season, despite a losing record and slim playoff hopes.
“We wanted to come out and play as hard as we could and show that we are going to give everything we have until the end,” said Roethlisberger.
Odds and end zones
Roethlisberger threw for 191 yards, but was intercepted in the third quarter. It was his first interception in 207 pass attempts. Roethlisberger also completed 20 passes, giving him 340 this season, breaking his own team record of 337 set in 2009. … Linebacker LaMarr Woodley left in the first quarter after aggravating a calf injury. He was replaced by Jones. … Brown caught five passes for 66 yards. He now has 95 receptions, matching Hines Ward for the second most in team history. … Bell had 107 yards of total offense (57 rushing, 50 receiving) and joined Franco Harris and Bam Morris as the only rookie running backs to record 1,000 total yards in a season for the Steelers. … The Steelers have scored 20 or more points in seven consecutive games, the first time that has happened since 2007.