CINCINNATI — The season will continue for the Pittsburgh Steelers and end for the Cincinnati Bengals, who saw their streak of postseason futility extended in heart-wrenching fashion.
Chris Boswell’s 35-yard field goal with 18 seconds left gave the Steelers an 18-16 victory over Cincinnati in a wild AFC wild-card playoff game played in steady rain on Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
“It’s disappointing,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “Our guys have fought their tails off all year. They fought their tails off today, got back and went ahead. It’s disappointing.”
Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron’s 25-yard touchdown pass to receiver A.J. Green gave the Bengals the lead with 1:50 to play, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s interception moments later appeared to have sealed their first playoff win in 25 years.
“We were so close to giving this city what it deserves,” said McCarron. “For it not to happen, it [stinks]. It’s bad.”
It was a fumble by running back Jeremy Hill which gave Pittsburgh new life and helped allow the Steelers to advance to a playoff game at Denver on Jan. 17.
“We knew they were going to run the ball (on that drive),” said Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward. “We were preaching just rip the ball out.”
Following Hill’s fumble, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was carted off with a shoulder injury after being sacked by Burfict in the third quarter, returned to lead the Steelers to an unlikely win.
“It was dire,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin of choosing to pull Landry Jones in favor of Big Ben. “Ben and I looked at each other and said now or never.”
The Bengals were their own worst enemy on the decisive drive when a 15-yard penalty on Burfict for lowering his shoulder on receiver Antonio Brown, followed by a personal foul flag on cornerback Adam Jones, moved the ball into position for Boswell’s chip-shot game-winner.
“We destructed on ourselves, offense and defense together,” said Lewis.
Said Steelers LB Ryan Shazier of the critical penalties: “They (saw) the dam breaking and their emotions got to them”.
As Boswell’s field goal sailed through the uprights, jubilation turned to heartache for the Bengals.
“We have to be smart in situations throughout the game and make smart decisions,” said Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. “We had an opportunity to get a first down to win it, and to go from that to a loss, [stinks].”
McCarron, making his fourth start in place of injured starter Andy Dalton, overcame an erratic first half to finish 23-of-40 for 212 yards and a touchdown. He also had a lost fumble and an interception.
Roethlisberger finished 18-of-31 for 229 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s our guy,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. “I wouldn’t trade him for anyone else.”
Three field goals by Pittsburgh accounted for all the offense in the first half.
But a 60-yard catch and run by Brown in the third quarter helped set up an acrobatic 10-yard touchdown catch by receiver Martavis Bryant.
Replay confirmed that Bryant secured the ball with one hand between his legs while falling out of bounds to put Pittsburgh ahead 15-0.
A scuffle broke out after Shazier levied a hard hit on Bengals running back Gio Bernard, whose fumble was recovered by Pittsburgh at their own 25. Bernard did not return.
A few angry fans who felt there should’ve been a flag for helmet-to-helmet hit tossed bottles on the field. A couple were sent in the direction of Roethlisberger as he was carted off.
Momentum swung in the Bengals’ favor when a 42-yard pass interference penalty on safety Will Allen set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Hill to make the score 15-7.
The Bengals got a 36-yard field goal to get within 15-10 with 5:12 left.
Cincinnati’s next possession began at Pittsburgh’s 45 with 3:28 left. On fourth-and-2 at the 37, McCarron passed to Marvin Jones for a 9-yard gain to set up Green’s go-ahead touchdown.
The game featured the usual chippiness between these two AFC North rivals, with two unsportsmanlike penalties and two personal fouls called in the first half.
In the second quarter, Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Munchak was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct when he appeared to grab Reggie Nelson’s dreadlocks after the Bengals free safety forced running back Jordan Todman out of bounds at the Pittsburgh sideline.
Nelson later left the game with a left ankle injury.
There were a combined nine punts and two turnovers in a sloppy first half.
Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint starting in place of injured had a solid day with 58 rushing yards and four catches for 60.
“We had a great deal of confidence in Fitz,” said Tomlin. “He did what we expected him to do tonight.”
NOTES: Cincinnati’s last playoff victory came on Jan. 6, 1991. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis now is 0-7 in the postseason during his tenure. … Steelers RB DeAngelo Williams was inactive with a foot injury suffered last week at Cleveland. … After these teams met in December, the NFL handed out nearly $140,000 in fines — more than half levied against Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict. … Bengals QB Andy Dalton had the cast removed from his fractured right thumb and worked on gripping the ball this week in practice, but on Friday he was officially ruled out of this game.