Bengals lay egg in prime time

PITTSBURGH — The Bengals went to Heinz Field Sunday night with a chance to show the rest of the NFL they are more than just playoff participants. They left with a puzzling 30-20 loss to a Pittsburgh team on the verge of missing the playoffs for a second straight
season.

It wasn’t so shocking that the Bengals lost. How they lost was a surprise and will keep eyebrows raised when it comes to questions of just how good is this team.

Three special teams gaffs in the first quarter led to the Steelers taking a 21-0 lead at the end of the first 15 minutes. The Bengals, who have scored 40 or more points in their last three home games for the first time in franchise history, were held to no more than 20 points for the fourth consecutive road game. A defense that has prided itself all season on tackling and getting off the field didn’t do either very well.

The Bengals were playing catch-up all night long on all three fronts. It’s a scenario they’ve faced before and just like previous games at Cleveland, Miami and Baltimore it was a recipe for an L.

New England’s loss earlier in the day at Miami had opened the door for the Bengals to take control of the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed with two games to play. Now at 9-5, the Bengals still control their fate. At 9-5 they are still in first place in the AFC North, although Baltimore can make it a one-game advantage with two games left by winning in Detroit Monday night. With the last two games against Minnesota and Baltimore at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals are 6-0, they are still in shape to get to the playoffs for a third straight season.

But more is expected this season. Sunday night offered them a chance to grab something more but instead the game looked all too familiar, and not in a good way.

“We didn’t make anything happen,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “If you don’t play good, you’re going to get beat. If you don’t make things happen you’re going to lose the football game. That’s what happened.

“It surprised me (how we played), but we did.”

Punter Kevin Huber bobbled a snap near the goal line and was tackled at the 1-yard line, setting up Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the game. Cedric Peerman was ruled to have called for a fair catch on a short kickoff, negating a decent return and forcing the Bengals to start at their own 9. The offense gained one net yard on six plays, Huber punted the ball away but couldn’t flip field position and the Steelers turned the short field into a second touchdown.

Antonio Brown made it 21-0 with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown with 1:12 left in the first quarter. Adding insult to injury — literally — Huber was knocked from the game on a vicious block by Steelers backup linebacker Terence Garvin. Huber was watching Brown, trying to look for an angle to take and never saw Garvin.

Huber’s jaw is broken and wired shut. No official announcement has been made but chances are a Pro Bowl-caliber season for him is finished. Kicker Mike Nugent punted twice in place of Huber the rest of the game, but the Bengals are already setting up replacement tryouts for this week.

The offense managed minus-9 net yards in the first quarter. By the time running back Giovani Bernard scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:14 left in the second quarter it was only good enough to cut the Steelers’ lead to 24-7.

“It was surprising at the beginning but obviously if you have a first half like that you’re not going to win too many ball games,” said center Kyle Cook. “When one thing goes astray and goes bad and then snowballs on top of it, it’s hard to recover from it, especially on the road. By the time we actually got around to recovering from it, moving the ball and scoring points, by then it’s too late.”

There was no sense of panic in the Bengals postgame locker room. This team hasn’t panicked all season. Sunday was the sixth time it has found itself trailing by double digits in a game. It came back from 16 points to beat Green Bay and from 13 points down to beat Cleveland. Both of those games were at home. They came back from 14 points at Miami and 17 points at Baltimore before losing in overtime.

No matter what happened Sunday, the Bengals will only change perceptions of them in January. They’ve got two more games left to prove they belong playing in January.

“We are still in control of everything,” said quarterback Andy Dalton. “That’s where we want to be right now. There is no panic. There’s no extra little bit where we are trying to get frantic. We still have two games at home. If we take care of business a lot of good things can happen. We have to play well these next two weeks.”