PITTSBURGH — The Bengals are going back to the NFL’s big stage, where they’ll look to introduce the NFL to a young superstar wide receiver and a defense that’s playing as well as anybody’s defense.
The Bengals took a big step Sunday, clinching an AFC wild card spot for the second straight year with a 13-10 victory in Heinz Field. A late field goal by Josh Brown provided the winning points, but it was a Reggie Nelson interception and Andy Dalton pass to that gifted receiver, A.J. Green, that set it up. It’s that formula that makes the young Bengals a dangerous team going forward.
They punched their ticket by bullying a Steelers team that’s been a bully for a long time.
Left for dead at 3-5, that defense is the biggest reason the Bengals are 9-6 and going back to the postseason. The AFC North division race is over with Baltimore’s win over the Giants Sunday afternoon, but the Bengals weren’t going anywhere this season or next until they proved they could beat the Steelers and Ravens.
One down. It remains possible that next week’s meaningless Ravens-Bengals game could set up another in the playoffs the following week.
These Bengals have earned their way here, shaking off a four-game losing streak had them looking like, well, the Bengals. The franchise is making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1982.
The Bengals defense has allowed an average of just 12 points per game in the last seven games, only a late letdown two weeks ago vs. the Cowboys keeping next week’s game from being really big. That defense sacked Ben Roethlisbeger four times Sunday, intercepted him twice and scored a touchdown of its own — the Bengals only touchdown of the day — on a Leon Hall interception return.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a bona fide star, and he played like it Sunday with 2.5 sacks and two tackles for loss. Officially, he had two of the seven quarterback hits the Bengals put on Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger would guess that number was more like 30. The Steelers didn’t try to pass early and couldn’t throw late as Atkins consistently got in the backfield and the Bengals swarmed Roethlisberger, keeping him from making the kind of on-the-fly, on-the-run plays he’s burned the Bengals with so many times before.
“They’re second in the league in sacks for a reason,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
It’s Atkins inside, and a combination of Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers coming off the edge.
“It’s never just one guy,” Hall said, “and they’re always making plays.”
Said Gilberry: “I never played (in Pittsburgh) before today. Those fans are loud. We knew the only way to quiet them down was to shut the Steelers down. For most of the day, that’s exactly what we did.”
The Steelers converted just 2-of-14 third downs and didn’t get inside the Bengals’ 35 in the last 20 minutes. Their fourth-quarter possessions ended with two punts, a missed field goal and Nelson’s interception. Nelson had another interception he dropped earlier in the fourth quarter
“Defensively, we had one bad play,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We go as our front guys go.”
Lewis had a handful of game-management blunders, the Bengals only rushed for 19 yards and Dalton was far from perfect. But this was a huge win for many reasons, not just because it clinched a spot in the postseason. This season was going nowhere if the Bengals couldn’t come out of either Pittsburgh or Baltimore with a win, and with the spotlight on they did.
They earned the right to celebrate. After the game, linebacker Rey Maualuga skipped through the locker room singing to himself, “We did, we did, we did.”
Hall didn’t want to deal with superlatives or definites, but he didn’t run from the thought that the Bengals are playing as well as any defense in the league — and as well as they ever have.
“We’ve had some pretty good defenses under (defensive coordinator) Mike Zimmer,” Hall said. “I don’t know if this is the best we’ve played. I know we got the job done today.
“We’re pretty good right now.”
He knows the Bengals are on to something. Surviving a street fight Sunday gives them something to show for it.