CINCINNATI — Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t throw. Antonio Brown couldn’t stand without help.
Chris Boswell kicked a 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining as Pittsburgh somehow pulled out an 18-16 victory in an — really, just pick whatever synonym for "ugly" that works — AFC wild-card game Saturday night.
Pittsburgh (11-6) moved into field goal position thanks to consecutive 15-yard penalties on the Bengals, one on linebacker Vontaze Burfict and another on cornerback Adam Jones. Burfict dropped his shoulder and hit a defenceless Brown in the helmet as the All-Pro receiver came across the middle, and Jones lost his cool after getting into with Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter when Porter came onto the field as Brown was being tended to by trainers.
Boswell drilled his fourth field goal of the game on the next snap to give the Steelers their first playoff victory since the 2010 AFC championship.
"We won the game, that’s all that matters," Roethlisberger said.
Pittsburgh bolted off the field without so much as shaking hands while the Bengals vented their frustration after easily the most painful of their eighth straight post-season losses. Jones took to Instagram calling out Porter, a post Jones later deleted.
Cincinnati might want to do the same after somehow losing despite rallying from a 15-point deficit to have the lead and the in Pittsburgh territory and the lead with 1:30 to go.
Then the Bengals turned into … the Bengals.
Hill was stripped of the ball by Ryan Shazier while trying to run out the clock. The Steelers recovered at the Pittsburgh 9 and Roethlisberger and his aching right shoulder returned for a last-gasp drive. Unable to pass with any real authority, he still managed to get the Steelers near midfield with 22 seconds to go when he threw high to Brown in Cincinnati territory.
"It’s hard to put into words," said Hill. "Words don’t do anything at this point. It’s on me. I take full blame for it."
He had plenty of help from two of his volatile teammates, both with a history of questionable decision-making.
Burfict, whose sack of Roethlisberger sent the quarterback to the locker room, lowered his shoulder as Brown landed. The volatile linebacker earned a personal foul. Jones compounded the problem when he lost his cool while jawing with Porter, easily putting Boswell within field goal range after Cincinnati’s eighth — and final — flag of a ghastly night that ended with an unthinkable collapse.
"We destructed on ourselves," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
Roethlisberger finished 18 of 31 for 229 yards and a touchdown in rainy conditions. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 123 yards rushing filling in for injured DeAngelo Williams. Brown caught seven passes for 119 yards but was also diagnosed with a concussion.
Still, that production didn’t look like it would be enough. AJ McCarron put together an improbable comeback after Martavis Bryant’s somersaulting touchdown grab gave the Steelers a 15-0 lead heading into the final quarter.
Cincinnati (12-5) ripped off 16 straight points, the last six on a 25-yard strike from McCarron to A.J. Green that put the Bengals in front. They missed the 2-point conversion but had seized momentum completely, something that seemed near impossible after running back Gio Bernard was knocked unconscious by Shazier and fumbled late in the third quarter, a hit that seemed to ratchet up a game that was already contentious all the way to the edge … and maybe beyond.
When Burfict intercepted Landry Jones on Pittsburgh’s possession after Green’s score, Cincinnati and Lewis appeared ready to end the sixth-longest post-season drought in NFL history.
And just as suddenly as it appeared, the Bengals’ resolve vanished.
Hill had the ball tucked in his left arm when Shazier somehow clawed it out as Cincinnati tried to bleed the clock and the Steelers recovered at the Pittsburgh 9 with 1:23 left.
Just enough time for Roethlisberger — with a hefty assist from the Bengals — to send the Steelers to Denver and a rematch with the Broncos, whom Pittsburgh beat 34-27 on Dec. 20 with Brock Osweiler at quarterback instead of Peyton Manning.
"There’s no quit in this team," Roethlisberger said.
Another long winter looms in Cincinnati.
The Bengals controlled the AFC North, easily winning their fourth division title under Lewis even with QB Andy Dalton breaking his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 13. Yet all a dozen wins did was set them up for a third showdown with their longtime tormentor in an increasingly acidic rivalry.
Pittsburgh survived a bumpy four months that included significant injuries to Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, centre Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum. The Steelers needed a win in Cleveland and a Buffalo upset of the Jets on the final Sunday to make the playoffs for a second straight year.
A trip to Cincinnati hardly seemed a problem: The Steelers have lost in Paul Brown Stadium only three times since it opened in 2000, a sea of Terrible Towels turning the Bengals’ home into Heinz Field West. It served as the launching point of a Super Bowl run in 2005.
Both teams pledged to be on their best behaviour with so much at stake, and for a while tempers were kept largely in check. There were no pregame fisticuffs this time — unlike Pittsburgh’s previous visit — thanks in part to assistant coaches on both sides creating a black-clad DMZ at midfield.
The first personal foul penalty came from an unlikely source, Pittsburgh Hall of Fame offensive line coach Mike Munchak, flagged for grabbing Reggie Nelson’s hair after the safety found himself mixing it up with a couple of Steelers after pushing Todman out of bounds.
McCarron, so effective while replacing Dalton, could do little. The Bengals managed just 56 yards of total offence yet trailed just 6-0 as the Steelers and the league’s third-ranked offence could muster only a pair of Boswell field goals.
As the game proceeded, it got more testy, nearly out of control in the fourth quarter. And it cost the Bengals dearly.
"It was a really emotional game, I’m not surprised," Shazier said. "They seen the dam breaking and their emotions got to them."