Steelers jump ahead early, hold on as Bengals stumble in playoff run
For all their precocious talent, the Cincinnati Bengals are still trying to figure out this "winning-in-December-and-beyond" thing.
The Pittsburgh Steelers provided another important lesson along the way for the burgeoning AFC North power: Be ready or be humbled.
Antonio Brown caught a touchdown pass and returned a punt for a score in a 64-second span in the first quarter and the Steelers overpowered the Bengals 30-20 on Sunday night.
Shaun Suisham added three field goals for the Steelers (6-8), who built a 24-point lead and hardly looked like a team playing out the string.
"It's always great when you dictate the game and play ahead and not play catch up," Brown said.
The victory kept Pittsburgh's ever-so faint postseason hopes alive even if simply avoiding the franchise's first losing season in a decade is a considerably more attainable goal.
"We're just trying to show people the guys on this team, the coaches, they still want to play and they have a lot of fight left in them," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.
Ben Roethlisberger completed 20 of 25 passes for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Le'Veon Bell added 117 yards of total offense to help the Steelers snap a two-game losing streak.
Andy Dalton completed 25 of 44 for 230 yards and two second-half touchdowns, but Cincinnati (9-5) never recovered after getting staggered early at frigid Heinz Field.
"We didn't make anything happen," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "We didn't make any plays, create any opportunities."
Looking to move closer to a third straight playoff berth and perhaps grab the inside track on the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Bengals were undone by a series of miscues on special teams and an offense that didn't get going until it was much too late.
"It's tough, for sure, because we had everything in front of us," Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green said. "We could have had ourselves set up in a great position if we could have come out here and won today. But, at least we have these last two games at home, and with the way we play at home I feel confident that we're going to win them back in Cincinnati."
Bell scored two plays after Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber dropped a snap while standing near the goal line after the Bengals' first possession. Pittsburgh's Will Allen dropped Huber at the 1 and Bell bulled into the end zone on second down for his sixth touchdown of the season.
Cincinnati had more issues on the ensuing kickoff.
Officials ruled Cedric Peerman called for a fair catch at the Cincinnati 9, wiping out a lengthy return. The Bengals eventually punted, setting up the Steelers with a short field. Pittsburgh went 47 yards in eight plays, with Roethlisberger buying enough time for Brown to get open for a 12-yard touchdown strike to make it 14-0.
Brown's early work wasn't done. Cincinnati punted yet again and Brown took it 67 yards right up the middle, breaking a tackle at midfield on his way to the second punt return for a score in his four-year career for Pittsburgh's third touchdown of the quarter.
Huber took a hard hit from Pittsburgh's Terence Garvin during the return. The punter was down on the field for several minutes before walking straight to the Cincinnati locker room with a fractured jaw. Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent took over Huber's punting duties.
Pittsburgh extended its lead to 24-0 before the Bengals steadied themselves with a 47-yard touchdown drive capped by Giovani Bernard's 1-yard run. The Steelers responded late in the half with Suisham's 45-yard field goal by to give them their biggest halftime lead of the season.
"You get offense and defense rolling, we think we're a real good team," Pittsburgh safety Ike Taylor said. "We've just got to get consistent."
Suisham's third field goal pushed Pittsburgh's advantage to 30-7 before the Bengals responded with Dalton's 1-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Eifert.
Dalton found Marvin Jones for a 13-yard score on fourth-and-5 with 5:51 to play, but Dalton's 2-point conversion attempt was batted down, keeping the deficit at 10 points.
Cincinnati got the ball back one more time, and Dalton's long heave to A.J. Green on fourth down fell incomplete.
"It was a snowball effect," Cincinnati center Kyle Cook said. "It's tough when you're all bundled up like that to start the game, and then the next thing you know you're down 21-0. So, that makes it tough to get going and come back from that deficit."
NOTES: The crowd of 45,873 was the smallest in the 13-year history of Heinz Field. ... Brown caught five passes for 66 yards and a score and now has 95 receptions on the season, tied for second-most in team history. ... Bengals linebacker James Harrison, making his first appearance in Pittsburgh since leaving the Steelers to sign with Cincinnati in the offseason, left in the first quarter with a concussion.